History might record that the summer of 2009 was the pivotal moment for the British mission in Helmand. It has been a bloody few weeks with 15 dead in a 10-day period, including the most senior Army officer in three decades. These deaths, and another yesterday, and the eight coffins, witnessed by a few hundred of us in Camp Bastion and later by thousands in Wootton Bassett on Wednesday, has, after three years of evasion, produced the necessary debate about what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan.
The resolve of politicians and military commanders is being tested as never before – as indeed is public support for the mission. But the harsh reality is that we must be prepared for more deaths if we are to succeed in Operation Panther’s Claw, which began four weeks ago to clear a Taliban stronghold in central Helmand, and in the longer campaign in general.
Panther’s Claw is closer to that of the Somme than a modern battle. Soldiers find themselves up to their chests in irrigation ditches, or exchanging fire with insurgents a few yards away, before trying to cross the next heavily mined 100-yard stretch of field or road to fight their way into a building. It’s compound by compound fighting,” one infantryman told me. “We are fighting for every inch of ground.”
To a man and a woman (there are female dog handlers, medics and others on the front line) the word “dangerous” is usually preceded by an expletive or other heartfelt adjective to describe the fighting. One company from 2nd Bn The Mercian Regiment was reported to have lost 47 out of 110 men, one dead and the remainder incapacitated by injury or heat exhaustion (although many returned to action after treatment). So can anything break the deadlock of the minefields and ditches as the operation gathers for a “tactical pause” before resuming the offensive?
To ensure casualties are kept to a minimum, progress though mined areas is slow and meticulous. But consideration is also being given to an armoured thrust using tanks and Warrior armoured vehicles, although the poor roads and the criss-cross of irrigation ditches makes this difficult.
One understands public anger at the rising death toll. Blaming – justifiably – equipment failures is an obvious route of attack because the Government has been negligent in supplying land forces in the past. But while the debate about equipment intensifies in Britain, to commanders on the ground this issue has, to a point, become an irrelevance. Yes, we are short of helicopters but as the Chief of the General Staff, Gen Sir Richard Dannatt, demonstrated this week by travelling in a Blackhawk, there are now helicopters in abundance from the Americans (and a number of civilian charters). About six medium-lift Merlin helicopters and 11 refurbished Lynx will be delivered this year.
Despite some justifiable criticisms of the Viking armoured vehicle (many from this correspondent after the death of 10 soldiers), one commander told me it had saved nine of his soldiers’ lives, and was the only protected vehicle light enough to manoeuvre in the “Green Zone” of narrow bridges and roads, while providing an excellent fire-support platform with its medium or heavy machine gun. Certainly, there is better protected transport that the MoD could purchase, but much of this week’s criticism is the legacy of the deployment of the vulnerable Snatch Land Rover, which is no longer used for operations (although worryingly one was spotted outside a base in Sangin).
Gen Dannatt’s concern about equipment expressed yesterday is focused on tackling the increased threat from IEDs (improvised explosion devices) but, more importantly, on getting extra troops on the ground to combat the Taliban, who have evolved into an effective force, combining conventional fighting with advanced bomb-making skills.
“The Taliban’s fieldcraft skills are second to none,” a soldier told me this week. “I know it’s a cliché but they are literally ghost soldiers. One moment they will be firing at you from a well-chosen position and then by the time you have fought through the position or called in air support, they are gone.”
Ghost soldiers and an enemy that never seems to be beaten despite big losses is reminiscent of another war that went awry. Journalists who have been here since before the Helmand operation of 2006 have a sense of foreboding that was present during the latter stages of the Vietnam war. There was a substantial surge in troops before the Americans withdrew from South Vietnam, leaving behind a corrupt government and army that collapsed at their first test.
The Kabul hacks struggle to be persuaded by commanding officers who fly in for six-month tours talking about a “winnable war” and keeping the terrorists off the streets of Britain. There is also growing cynicism over the politicians – Gordon Brown included – trotting out the line that we are there to prevent another September 11 or July 7. Even some officers are beginning to ask if “we are creating more terrorists than we are killing”.
Also, what have the British actually achieved beyond “holding the line”? We entered the province with inadequate numbers and insufficient logistical support. Small numbers holding too many outposts meant that we were almost entirely reliant on aircraft dropping bombs to extract troops from firefights. The result? If they hadn’t already been killed in the crossfire, civilians packed their few possessions and left. A number of the dispossessed from the towns of Nowzad, Sangin or around Kajaki moved elsewhere – but with little to sustain them, many joined the Taliban for personal survival rather than ideological choice.
Without the right number of troops the British could never control the five main towns in Helmand. Even now we still don’t have enough “boots on the ground” to control the districts that we have pulled back to. In Sangin, where five soldiers died in a well-planned bomb ambush last Friday, the 2nd Bn The Rifles are under immense pressure to preserve the area’s tenuous security.
We have been in Sangin for three years yet we still don’t have enough troops to secure the town. It would take another infantry battalion to improve security to the point where teachers, doctors etc feel safe enough to return.
Having too few troops is a fatally false economy because it allows the Taliban the freedom of manoeuvre to plant more bombs, which means more casualties. More troops, means better security and fewer dead. The Prime Minister’s decision to turn down the military’s plea for an extra 2,000 men is under growing scrutiny.
The Americans have showed that numbers work. In the first six hours of Panther’s Claw, 4,000 men backed by Sea Stallion helicopters secured an area of southern Helmand that had been held by the Taliban for three years. Contrast this with the couple of hundred British soldiers clinging on to the same area since 2006 supported by the handful of Chinook helicopters serving an entire province.
There are now 10,000 US Marines arriving in Helmand, and the numbers and equipment could mark the “tipping point” that British commanders have been hoping for. Things could also improve once the Kabul government starts talks with members of the Taliban not wholly committed to its nihilistic ideology. That could happen soon after the elections next month.
To leave the country secure, an Afghan force of 250,000 trained men is needed. This is expected to be in place before the next US presidential election in 2012. A swift departure before American voters go to the polls is what the Obama administration wants. The current American review of Afghanistan is probably going to set low, achievable targets so it can reduce its forces.
For now, it is a question of politicians and commanders holding their nerve, being bold, keeping the public informed – and prepared for more fatalities. The truth is that the realisation of that sacrifice can only be justified if we see the mission through to a successful conclusion. There is hope that the new commander of the Army, Gen Sir David Richards, will provide a more focused approach towards Afghanistan and that his position will have been helped by Gen Dannatt’s request for more troops and specialist equipment.
But ultimately it will need political leadership, for either Gordon Brown to take ownership of the campaign (like his predecessor did in Northern Ireland) or to appoint a minister for Afghanistan – because for all the work the military might do, without the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, reconstruction and investment coming in behind it will count for little.