Thursday, October 05, 2006

The view from Helmand province, Afghanistan

There are some contradictory reports coming from Helmand province in Afghanistan, where British troops are deployed on a mission which was originally billed as a reconstruction effort designed to wean the local economy off the opium trade. Since then it has become clear that British troops are fighting a war so dangerous that it has largely gone unreported, except by the soldiers themselves.

The question is how that war is going.

Let's start with the view of Brigadier Ed Butler, the commander of the UK Task Force and 16 Air Assault Brigade, the unit which is about to finish its tour in the province. Reviewing the previous six months - which he described as a "war of attrition" - on 27 September he said: "I think we've won, we may not be quite there yet this year". He was referring to the tactical battle to defeat the Taliban. Butler also reported that "a secret deal" had "brought a halt to violence" in Musa Qala, a government outpost in northern Helmand.

Further revealing details about that secret deal have since emerged. "We were not going to be beaten by the Taliban in Musa Qala," the Daily Telegraph quoted Butler as saying, "but the threat to helicopters from very professional Taliban fighters and particularly mortar crews was becoming unacceptable. We couldn't guarantee that we weren't going to lose helicopters." Let alone the logistical problems losing a helicopter would cause (the British have only 6 Chinooks available at the moment), knowing that such a loss would cause significant political fallout in Britain, 16 Bde were compelled to conclude a deal, brokered by Afghan elders: the British won't shoot if the Taliban don't shoot at them. The elders are expected to persuade the Taliban not to attack - precisely the task of British troops, who were supposed to be protecting the reconstruction effort. The real reasons for the truce are 1) British forces are overstretched and underequipped and 2) having sold the mission to the public as a reconstruction effort British politicians do not believe that the public will tolerate casualties.

There is now a lull in the fighting, according to the British. "I fully acknowledge that we could be being duped; that the Taliban may be buying time to reconstitute and regenerate," Butler told the Daily Telegraph. "But every day that there is no fighting the power moves to the hands of the tribal elders who are turning to the government of Afghanistan for security and development." However, Tom Coghlan, the Telegraph reporter, came up with another, thought-provoking suggestion for the sudden lull in Taliban activity: a two weeks or so ago, the new opium poppy sowing season began.

In the meantime there are few signs that the wider, strategic battle for hearts and minds is being won. The UNHCR estimated this week that 90,000 Afghans have been displaced by the fighting in southern Afghanistan. And Reuters carried another interesting report about the Taliban's efforts to force schools in southern Afghanistan to close. It is a measure of just how deep the problem is that even the girl's schoool in the regional capital, Lashkar Gah, which is under British noses, has been threatened. The British have an uphill struggle ahead.


Man in a shed said...

Whats really worrying is the wide range of opinion coming back from the MOD, NuLabour on one side, and reporters and sevicement on the other. I would guess there is a ceasefire because the Taliban want one - whilst they figure out what they are getting wrong and fix their tactics. When they start up again its going to be bad news.

EmpiresFall said...

Mr. Barrm

You left a link in a comment on EmpiresFall. I wonder if I could run excerpts of that great article.