Christina Lamb – Times Online October 8, 2006
British forces holed up in isolated outposts of Helmand province in Afghanistan are to be withdrawn over the next two to three weeks and replaced by newly formed tribal police who will be recruited by paying a higher rate than the Taliban.
The move is the result of deals with war-weary locals and reverses the strategy of sending forces to establish “platoon houses” in the Taliban heartland where soldiers were left under siege and short of supplies because it was too dangerous for helicopters to fly in.
Troops in the four northern districts of Sangin, Musa Qala, Nawzad and Kajaki have engaged in the fiercest fighting since the Korean war, tying up more than half the mission’s available combat force. All 16 British soldiers killed in the conflict died in these areas.
“We were coming under as many as seven attacks a day,” said Captain Alex Mackenzie of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, who spent a month in Sangin. “We were firing like mad just to survive. It was deconstruction rather than reconstruction.”
Lieutenant-General David Richards, commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, has long been critical of tying up troops in static positions, while the British government has grown increasingly concerned that it was affecting public support for the mission.
Since taking command of the British forces at the end of July, Richards has been looking for a way to pull them out without making it look like a victory for the Taliban.
“I am confident that in two to three weeks the securing of the districts will be achieved through a different means,” he said. “Most of the British troops will then be able to be redeployed to tasks which will facilitate rapid and visible reconstruction and development, which we’ve got to do this winter to prove we can not only fight but also deliver what people need.”
The districts will be guarded by new auxiliary police made up of local militiamen. They will initially receive $70 (£37) a month, although it is hoped that this will rise to $120 to compete with the $5 per fighting day believed to be paid by the Taliban. “These are the same people who two weeks ago would have been vulnerable to be recruited as Taliban fighters,” said Richards.
“It’s employment they want and we need to make sure we pay more than the Taliban.”
The withdrawal of the British troops will coincide with the departure of 3 Para, whose six-month deployment is coming to an end. The battalion will be replaced by Royal Marines from 3 Commando Brigade who started arriving last week.
Locals in these districts are fed up with the fighting that has led to the destruction of many homes, bazaars and a school. A delegation of more than 20 elders from Musa Qala met President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday evening and demanded to be allowed to look after their own security. “The British troops brought nothing but fighting,” they complained. They pledged that if allowed to appoint their own police chief and district chief, they would keep out the Taliban.
The other crucial factor has been Nato’s success last month in inflicting the heaviest defeat on the Taliban since their regime fell five years ago. The two-week Operation Medusa in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar province left between 1,100 and 1,500 Taliban dead, many of whom were believed to be committed fighters rather than guns for hire.
“Militarily it was against the odds — it was only because the Taliban were silly enough to take us on in strength when we had superior firepower and because of very, very brave fighting on the part of Americans, Canadians, British and Dutch, as well as the Afghan national army,” said Richards.
The Taliban, emboldened by their successes in Helmand, had changed their strategy from hit-and-run tactics to a frontal attack, apparently intending to try to take the key city of Kandahar. They had taken advantage of a change of command of foreign troops in the south from American to Canadian and eventually Nato to move large amounts of equipment and men into the Panjwayi district southwest of the city. The area was a stronghold of the mujaheddin during the Russian occupation and contains secret tunnels and grape-drying houses amid orchards and vineyards alongside the Argandab River.
After initial setbacks, including the crash of a British Nimrod aircraft in which 14 servicemen died and an incident in which an American A10 bomber strafed Canadian forces, killing one and wounding 35, Nato forces turned the situation around. Wave after wave of Taliban arriving on pick-ups to join the fight were mown down. More than 100 are believed to have been captured and reports from Quetta in neighbouring Pakistan suggest that Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, has instructed his men to return to their old guerrilla tactics.
The number of daily “contacts” between troops and insurgents has since dropped from a high of 24 in September to just two, although the lull in fighting may be partly because of Ramadan, the fasting month.
Richards believes that the victory has won his forces a six-month window during which the international community must make visible changes for the people of southern Afghanistan or risk losing everything.
“Fighting alone is not the solution,” he warned. “We’ve got to win over the 70% of people in southern Afghanistan who are good peasant stock and basically want security and the means to feed their families. If it’s only fighting they see ahead of them for the next five years, chances are that they will say well, we’d rather have the Taliban and all that comes with it.
“The means to persuade them is not just to show we can win, as we have done, but also that it’s all worth it, which means pretty visible and ready improvements.”
He added: “The military can’t do much more — it’s up to the government and development agencies. At the moment somehow it isn’t happening and we’re beginning to lose time.”
The military is locked in a debate with the Department for International Development (DFID) which has £20m to spend in Helmand but feels that the situation is too insecure for development and believes the focus should be on long-term projects.
Asked last week what reconstruction it had carried out in Helmand so far, a DFID representative could cite only the rebuilding of market stalls in two districts. The official added that the department did not want to draw attention to any improvements because that might make them targets.
The military want the DFID to hand over some of its funds to enable them to carry out work. “We have to prove to the population today that tomorrow is worth waiting for,” said Richards.
He said that in Helmand’s main town of Lashkar Gah last month, only one young man in a group of 20 he met had a job. “If there aren’t any jobs and the Taliban come along and say we’ll offer you $5 a day for taking pot-shots at the Brits then they will,” he said.
“That’s where we should be spending our money — creating jobs. And it really isn’t good enough just doing the long-term stuff.”
Karzai will chair a meeting on reconstruction this week, including ministers and foreign donors, in the hope of kickstarting programmes such as road building and irrigation.
“We’ve got six months to prove to the 70% that it’s all worth it, that we can not only deliver security but the things they really want,” Richards said. “If we do, I think things will be much better and we will have turned the curve. If we don’t, then my prognosis is that next year will be even worse than this year.”
Last updated 10/10/2006