The latest push against the Taliban at last appears to be changing Afghanistan for the better, says Thomas Harding .
Four years, 263 British lives, £10 billion spent and the generals say that we have finally got to the “end of the beginning” in Afghanistan. Operation Moshtarak is in its second week and, like the early spring that has arrived in Helmand, it feels warm and comfortable – unlike the days of hailstorms, cold, thunder and lightning that preceded its launch.
The Taliban face being driven out of central Helmand, denied the luxury to plan killings from their strongholds and raise finances from the opium trade. Of course, they have not gone away. There will be more deaths of soldiers and civilians, in attacks that could become ever more barbaric and desperate. But the insurgents are certainly on the run.
More importantly – much more importantly – the American, British and Afghan forces that have poured into the area are getting among the population and preventing the insurgents from reaching the civilians. Although the American push in Marjah is harder going, with the Taliban concentrating their forces to make a stand, the insurgents have seemed utterly incapable of mounting significant attacks in the British sector of Nad-e-Ali.
That the British now have enough helicopters has certainly helped. With contributions from the Canadians and five extra RAF Merlins, the British have at last been able to generate a force capable of breaking records for air assault and resupply. Landing at several locations simultaneously – 1,200 troops deployed to 16 different sites within two hours, in complete darkness – caused considerable disorientation among the enemy, who were unsure where to attack, or which flank had been taken.
And despite the lack of set-piece battles, there have been some highly symbolic moments, which will cause as much damage to the Taliban’s image as a Hellfire missile landing among the leadership. At dawn on the third day of Operation Moshtarak, I watched alongside a small huddle of soldiers as the Taliban’s flag was hurled down from a disused crane in Showal, the small town that was the capital of its shadow government, and replaced with the national ensign. It had been there for almost two years.
For a few minutes we chatted, took pictures and shook hands. A text message was sent via satellite phone to an officer at brigade headquarters: “The flag of Afghanistan flies over Showal.” Within hours, the news spread, and a stampede of generals and politicians ensued, which culminated in the arrival of Gen Stanley McChrystal, the American military commander, the Afghan governor of Helmand and the defence and interior ministers.
As I interviewed him for the eight minutes it took us to walk up to the crane, Gen McChrystal was understandably chipper. Helmand had “turned a corner”, he felt – and while he was still reticent about declaring victory, and warned of Taliban violence ahead, he was clearly a man who felt the scales had finally been tipped. His plan was working – endorsing his bid for an extra 30,000 troops, which President Barack Obama acceded to at the end of last year.
We only discovered two days later that, within 20 yards of where the crowd gathered, lay an unexploded 20kg IED, but for now it appears that luck is with the Nato forces.
Their success gives them a window of opportunity to truck in the materials needed to build patrol bases and checkpoints, which are the key to showing the population that they are here to stay. The people were led to believe that they were being freed from the Taliban’s tyranny once before, only to see the inadequate British forces withdrawing, leaving them to suffer the subsequent retribution against “collaborators”.
In Marjah, south of the Nad-e-Ali area, the 6,000 US Marines have faced the toughest battle, against insurgents who seem determined to make a stand. While casualties might be high, the outcome is certain, even if the American ability to exercise “courageous restraint” in not putting civilian lives at risk will come under great pressure. At least 12 bystanders have already died from coalition fire.
This restraint is the central tenet of Gen McChrystal’s emerging counter-insurgency doctrine in Afghanistan. It is simple: if you kill civilians, damage their homes and destroy their crops, you are not going to win their support. Better for the commander to hold fire and let an insurgent get away than kill an innocent.
I found no better example of this than a soldier from the Royal Welsh who, using night-sights from his sentry position, spotted two Afghan men digging into the road late at night. The thermal imagery showed a “hot spot”, suggesting that a bomb was about to be planted.
The young soldier was within the rules of engagement to use lethal force but instead he called in his platoon commander, who sent out a small patrol along with an interpreter. The Afghans turned out to be repairing the road, the difference in heat being the hot water mixed with mud to fill a pothole.
The local men, unused to a coalition presence, realised how lucky they had been; the next day, their families visited the platoon to show their gratitude.
“It is that sort of moment that could be the decisive event in this campaign,” an officer said. He later added: “We hope to get away from fighting the war to fighting the terrorist, almost moving to the dispersed nature of South Armagh, with watchtowers, surveying the population and playing cat and mouse with the terrorist.”
Once these bases and watchtowers are up – and it will be a race to get them built before the Taliban find the leadership and co‑ordination to resume a roadside bombing campaign – work can begin on rebuilding schools, health clinics and roads. This is not an impoverished area: as a result of substantial irrigation work in the Fifties, much of it paid for by America, it is rich in farmland. All the people want is security.
On this topic, Nato seems to have learnt its lessons. Officers admit they were too obsessed by the size of the territory they controlled on a map; now it’s about concentrating on a smaller area, but one where most of the population lives. “Who cares what happens north or south of that?” one officer asked me. “It is irrelevant. Whoever controls the population wins the fight.”
So far, and it’s still very early, the outlook is good. Already men are shaving their beards in the town of Naqilebad, unafraid of Taliban brutality. Some families have returned from exile. “If the population stands together with us, the Taliban will find it very difficult to get back in,” says Lt Col Nick Lock, the commander of the Royal Welsh battle group.
“Clearly the insurgency is not over and they are still around,” said Major Shon Hackney, one of his company commanders. “We need to ensure that we protect the population here and allow them to get on with their lives.
“One of the Taliban’s options would be to snipe at us from the flanks, or just withdraw and move the insurgency elsewhere. They could also regroup and decide to contest the ground we are holding, but I think they’ll go for the first option.”
A key part of the next stage in the fight against the insurgents will be played by the Afghan national army. While it is some distance from reaching the level of Western forces, its presence in numbers gives the population confidence that they are not being occupied by foreigners. Culturally, it cuts out many misunderstandings.
British officers admit that, in the past, there has been the veneer of an “Afghan face” on operations, but with Moshtarak they have worked exhaustively alongside their counterparts.
It will be at least two years before the Afghan army raises its current complement of 100,000 to the desired 134,000, and probably far longer before it achieves the near autonomy that the Iraqi army managed in 2008. And there is always the danger of corruption and indiscipline while troops remain static – and far more so among the Afghan police force, whose reputation has some distance to travel.
From the point of view of the British military, however, this situation is incomparably preferable to that which prevailed four years ago. Officers admit they had little idea of what the strategy was before McChrystal arrived: it seemed to be simply a mission to carry out “smash ops”, seizing territory from the enemy only to cede it again, leaving the population bruised and disillusioned. It was also an awful risk sending so few troops to Helmand in 2006 – 3,350, compared with 10 times that number today, if you include the surge of 21,000 Americans.
It has taken an inspirational American general and his country’s mighty resources to retrieve the initiative in Helmand. But the British Army believes it at last has the right balance, and pretty much the right equipment, to be able to stand its force of 10,000 shoulder to shoulder with America’s. As one of those officers joked hopefully to me as we said our goodbyes up in Showal: “It might be time for you to find another war.”
Published in the Telegraph: