Topic(s): Afghanistan | Comments Off on Rene — BUSH & BLAIR: THE AFGHAN FANTASY

By Raymond Whitaker
Sunday Independent/UK
05 November 2006
Neither will admit that Afghanistan is a struggle. But their denial
is costing the lives of civilians and troops on the frontline
“Some of the guys think we shouldn’t be here, but most of us support
it,” a Royal Marine told me as we patrolled near Lashkar Gah, the
capital of Afghanistan’s Helmand province. A huge sun was setting
behind the mud walls of Mukhtar, a desperately poor village outside
the town which houses refugees from less stable areas.
“We know what we’re doing here: supporting the Afghan people,” the
marine went on. He did not say it, but the implication was that this
was different from Iraq, where British troops must be wondering about
their mission after the chief of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt,
said they should leave “soon”.
British officers in Helmand, from the commander, Brigadier Jerry
Thomas, down, are relentlessly on-message about the purpose of their
deployment, now six months old. They have not come to this hot,
dusty southern province to fight the Taliban, they say, though if
the insurgents want a fight, they will get it. Instead the measure
of the mission’s success or failure will be whether hearts and minds
can be won in the “Afghan development zone”. This is a triangle in
the centre of Helmand whose points are Lashkar Gah, Gereshk, the main
commercial centre, and Camp Bastion, the main British base.
If reconstruction and development in this ADZ can be seen to benefit
what one officer called Afghan “floating voters”, the hope is that this
will help to erode support for the Taliban and spread stability to
the rest of the province. But the mission, which the then Secretary
of State for Defence, John Reid, suggested might be carried out
over three years “without firing a shot”, has proved infinitely more
difficult than that. The problems the troops are seeking to tackle
are far worse than they were four years ago, when the West, contrary
to Tony Blair’s words, turned its attention from Afghanistan to Iraq.
In Camp Bastion I passed a group of emaciated members of the Royal
Regiment of Fusiliers who had just been brought out of Now Zad, a town
in the north of Helmand where British troops were never originally
intended to go. Their hollow-eyed stares were a testament to the
bitter fighting in which they and the Third Battalion, the Parachute
Regiment, were engaged during the summer, when small detachments in
places like Now Zad, Musa Qala and Sangin fought off wave after wave
of Taliban attacks.
British forces were sent to these towns at the request of Helmand’s
governor, Mohammed Daud, newly appointed by Kabul after pressure to
replace his predecessor, who was accused of involvement in the drugs
trade. Governor Daud wanted to assert government authority over the
north of the province, and it was politically difficult to refuse
him help. But the clashes and ensuing rows at home over equipment
and supplies appear to have confused the British public over what
our troops are supposed to be doing in southern Afghanistan.
A recent ICM poll for the BBC found that 63 per cent thought they were
there to help the Afghan government fight the Taliban. Nearly half,
46 per cent, believed the purpose was to stop the flow of drugs
– Helmand is not only the largest province in Afghanistan, it is
responsible for 42 per cent of the country’s opium production. Half
the heroin on British streets comes from Helmand.
These are not the primary purpose of the deployment, however. And the
poll found that 53 per cent of respondents opposed British military
operations in Afghanistan. But 26-year-old Marines Cpl Ross Jones, of
42 Commando, took issue with the findings. “When you get around here
and see what a difference you could make, you see it very differently,”
he said. “We get the full picture: it’s very hard for people back
home to imagine what it’s like.”
Corporal Paul Butler, who has served in Kabul, echoed this view. “Kabul
has been transformed in the past two years,” he said. Effecting a
similar change here, though, will be much harder.
Any Taliban fighter who could see Camp Bastion, with its Apache attack
helicopters and hundreds of fighting troops, would be daunted. But
Bastion was deliberately sited out in the desert, and has never been
attacked. The British presence in Lashkar Gah and Gereshk is much more
modest. In both the troops are based in heavily fortified compounds
no larger than the grounds of a Home Counties hospital.
The Lashkar Gah camp, on the outskirts of the town, will be even
more cramped this weekend following the arrival of Brigadier Thomas
and his headquarters staff from Kandahar. The move is symbolic of a
fresh start since 3 Commando Brigade took over Helmand a month ago
from 16 Air Assault Brigade: with the fighting having died down as
winter approaches, there may be space to carry out “quick-impact”
development work, such as upgrading schools. If the Taliban come
back in the spring, it is hoped that they will be weakened by ebbing
support and battle losses.
The plan masks many uncertainties, however. On the way to a meeting at
which Governor Daud was due to address mullahs and village leaders to
urge them to discourage opium poppy planting, we passed a blackened
hole by the side of the road. This was where Gary Wright, the only
Marine lost so far, was killed by a suicide bomber in the first such
death suffered by British forces in Helmand.
This sinister new threat has caused the Marines to maintain a lower
profile in the centre of the two main towns, where the aim is that
Afghan security forces will be in control, though officers admit the
police in particular are “a disaster”.
And the next big test for British forces might not be far away. The
Afghan government is shaping up for a new poppy eradication campaign,
possibly as early as next month, and despite the desire of British
commanders to avoid losing local support by being associated with
destroying farmers’ livelihoods, they could be drawn in.
That might sound like good news to the many ordinary Marines itching
for the chance to take on the enemy, but not for their officers, who
realise what a complex, frustrating and dangerous task they have to
win and maintain local support.
“To those looking for a fight, I always say: ‘Be careful what you
wish for,'” said the head of 42 Commando, Colonel Matt Holmes.