"Taliban commanders ... getting to the bottom of the barrel in terms of resources".
Afghanistan: Beating the Taliban one step at a time
As British troops launch the biggest offensive of the summer, the new strategy of security is working, says Thomas Harding in Helmand.
by Thomas Harding
Published: 7:00AM BST 31 Jul 2010
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A Royal Marine while on patrol at a weekly cattle market in Sangin, Afghanistan
It has been a bleak week for the war in Afghanistan. The generals directing the fight and the politicians overseeing the campaign will have been frantically asking themselves if the biggest leak in US military history will have the same game-changing effect as Vietnam’s Pentagon Papers. For the public, too, this comes at the worst possible time, where perception of the conflict is gloomy, the outlook dark.
Only a month ago we passed the figure of 300 British dead – now it’s 325. The so-called “McChrystal bounce” is in danger of falling flat with the exit of the general; the coffins still lumber through Wootton Bassett; and now a man who has released 90,000 secret documents on the whistle-blowing website Wikileaks is intent on derailing a campaign to which 42 countries have committed their troops. Can more go wrong? It certainly will.
But is anything going right? Dare to whisper it, but there is a story of the campaign quietly going forward in Helmand (albeit before the impact of the leaks has been measured). Some say that progress is measured in “baby steps”, others that it is “glacial”, but move outside the cauldron of destruction in Sangin, where 101 troops have died, and another story can be told in Afghanistan’s most fractious province.
It is casualties that will test the mettle of the British and American people to see this war through. The figures for this year are not good: 80 so far compared with 108 for all of 2009, which was the worst on record for the British Army since 1972. But there is, commanders argue, a reason for the high body count and it stems from a new approach to the campaign which has gone largely unreported.
It is based on the one key demand among the Helmand population – security. It was what Gen Stanley McChrystal demanded, along with a sharp drop in civilian casualties – which has happened in the last nine months.
A deliberate decision has been taken to conduct a policy called “protected communities”. The principle is simple. Build a base in the middle of a town or village, then surround the population of about 1,000 with a series of checkpoints or forts to protect them. Beyond this circle is the no-man’s-land of the “contested area”; beyond that is the “insurgents’ haven” where the Taliban roam.
The theory is, if you protect the community you will convince them that you are a force for good and cut them off from insurgent reprisals or influence.
It is in the “contested area” that the coalition is suffering 90 per cent of attacks, which contribute to the high body count. Simply put, the British are fighting the Taliban everywhere and the insurgents are contesting every foot of ground. But with the right number of troops now in place, it may mean that it is the insurgents, rather than the coalition, who face defeat in Helmand.
It is certainly the reason the British commander in Helmand, Brigadier Richard Felton, a former Apache attack helicopter commander, remains optimistic about the chance of success.
“It would be very easy to be dragged down by the casualties,” he said. “It’s a hard fight this summer but there is definitely purpose to it. The Taliban are threatened because they are being pushed out, away from the population.”
Out on the ground I had the chance to see the protected communities in practice in Babaji, the area in which British troops grappled with the Taliban during Operation Panther's Claw last year.
I was last there with the Coldstream Guards in December when the territory was fractious. Now the village is ringed with British-designed Hesco bastion sandbags, which form the walls around the bases as an effective barrier against gunfire, following an operation that put the Taliban on the periphery overnight and ensured security for 500 locals.
Relations have now got to the point where farmers tilling the land at first light would call in at checkpoints to register that they are in the fields and sometimes feed the troops titbits of information on planted bombs. The locals, for now, appear content with the arrangement. “Before building this checkpoint people were trying to leave the village but now they stay,” said one shopkeeper.
“Intimidation was rife around this area,” said Lt Col Gez Strickland, commander of the Royal Gurkha Rifles battle group in Babaji. “It was pretty vicious. There were abductions and murders of people co-operating with the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). Five or six were killed and their bodies dumped in the canal. But when we put the checkpoints up, the Taliban stopped coming in and the village was transformed.”
Like most commanders, Strickland argues that greater “force density” (more troops) will speed up progress. With 1,400 British troops handing over Sangin to the Americans this autumn there will be more opportunity for quicker change. “There will be setbacks but by the end of the year we hope to secure between 60 and 70 per cent of the population,” he said.
One thing that the Wikileaks exposé shows is that all is not going well for the Taliban commanders whose names are drawn up on the JPEL (Joint Prioritised Effects List). Of the 240 Taliban commanders on the list in Helmand, 50 have been killed or captured by special forces this year, including 31 in the past month.
“I’m maintaining a very high tempo across the entire area that’s putting considerable stress on the insurgents, including surgical strikes against its commanders,” said Brig Felton.
More of the deadly IEDs are found to be Heath Robinson affairs that either fail to detonate or do so with a “home goal”, killing those who lay them. There are more frequent requests from Taliban commanders for reinforcements who are “getting to the bottom of the barrel in terms of resources”.
Brigadier Felton’s headquarters are in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand. An entire battalion of 600 British troops is now based in the town, alongside several hundred Afghan police and army providing much-needed security. Business is good. Fruit and vegetable stalls teem with melons, tomatoes and the odd potato, and electrical goods sell.
“Everything is here in abundance – three growing seasons and non-stop water. This place could put Holland out of business for stem flowers and southern Europe for soft fruit,” said Lt Col Lincoln Jopp, the Scots Guards’ commanding officer in Lashkar Gah. “They just need leadership and confidence to realise their potential after 30 years of being dumped on.”
A burgeoning economy has led to a tripling of city-centre rents, forcing one animal-vaccination seller onto the outskirts in search of a cheaper deal. “Business has been better for one year now,” he said. And how long did he want the British to stay? “To be honest I want them to stay a long time because we need constant security.”
But there is a frustration shared by British troops throughout Helmand towards the local population. The province has so much to offer in terms of agricultural wealth, yet the people refuse to embrace the reconstruction cash that is being waved in their faces.
One can understand why. They still don’t trust ISAF forces enough to pledge their loyalty because what will happen when they leave? Will they be trussed up and beheaded like all the previous “collaborators”? It has happened before and the leaks of this week will keep many firmly on the fence.
Meanwhile, the troops are following the time-honoured Roman tradition of taming/winning over a population by building a road. Its importance can be measured by the cohorts of Taliban being poured in to stop its construction.
If the last three miles of Route Trident is built, it will mean a safe road runs from the economic hub of Gereshk to Lashkar Gah, allowing farm goods to be traded farther afield and for more money.
“Once it is built it will mean a tactical defeat for the Taliban,” said Lt Col Strickland. “That’s why they are fighting us for it.”
“Fez”, a Royal Engineer commanding the front part of the road, had another view. “We tell the lads that no matter what happens today we will go back to build it tomorrow because too many lives have been lost and too much money spent building this road.” He hopes to complete it by the end of August.
The military are now waiting to see whether the Wikileaks revelations will have an enduring impact on the campaign. What is accepted is that the release of local interpreters’ names, along with the precise GPS reference of where they live, will certainly lead to a loss of faith, and time will judge whether the interpreters or intelligence sources come back.
“We just have to ride out this particular storm to re-establish the trust and allegiance of the Afghans,” a general told me this week. “The whole thing is a shame, as for the first time we have a strategy in place which works when it is well resourced. The situation is difficult but by no means desperate.”
Another officer sums up what is happening across Helmand. “We are now contesting the main prize – the population.”
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