BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Soldiers' deaths will not guarantee Helmand success

Mark Urban | 11:03 UK time, Tuesday, 14 July 2009


Casualties are rarely an accurate measure of success in military operations.

The Duke of Wellington used to call it the "butcher's bill", recognising that the only thing worse than paying the price of victory was paying it for failure.

In the current British-led offensive in Helmand - Operation Panther's Claw - there are worrying signs that the loss of life in recent days may not produce the lasting success most people in Britain would hope for.

These indicators have little to do with the willingness of the British (and Danish) troops to suffer and bleed in carrying out their orders.

They are to do with concerns that the hard won gains of these house to house fights, in terms of clearing out pockets of Taliban resistance, will not be sustainable.

This is why Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been on the phone to President Hamid Karzai, urging him to send more Afghan security forces to the troubled province.

The US model of "clear, hold and build" envisages tough fighting.

I was an eyewitness to this in the bitterly contested Baghdad suburb on Doura in April 2007.

The platoon I was embedded with lost three of its 36 soldiers, and had a further 10 wounded. The figures for the battalion to which they belonged were 18 killed and 60 wounded.

The unit which followed them lost nobody - by then the success of the new US tactics and surge had made the neighbourhood dramatically less dangerous.

But the Iraqis were ready to step in rapidly behind the Americans in newly established Joint Security Stations. Now they run Doura and the US troops no longer patrol.

General David Petraeus, architect of those tactics, and now overall commander of US troops in the wider Middle East, predicted that this summer's fighting in Afghanistan would bring heavier casualties to Nato and indeed to local civilians.

But, like commanders through history, he expects the hard fighting to produce results.

The problem with Operation Panther's Claw is this. There are 3,500 British and 500 or so Danish troops involved. There are about 250 members of the Afghan National Army (ANA).

Another two companies of ANA soldiers are supposed to arrive in August and a few hundred police too.

Even being charitable, it is unlikely that the Afghan security forces will top 1,000 in an area where the population is believed to be between eighty thousand to one hundred thousand.

There will not be enough Afghan troops to sustain security, unless of course, the Taliban give up the game entirely in the area.

Nato's options in this will be - to pressure the Afghan government into sending more, to take much of the strain locally with Nato troops, or to accept that some of the gains of recent fighting will be lost.

We are already witnessing the pressure on Mr Karzai to send more.

But if foreign troops end up sustaining a lasting presence in the area they will be "fixed", and unable to operate elsewhere.

Senior British officers are very reluctant to accept that they will clear areas they cannot hold in the long term, and even suggest that Operation Panther's Claw will stop if the Afghans do not provide sufficient forces to safeguard the gains.

But in truth the British brigade commander leading this operation will probably have to decide how far to push his advance long before he really knows how many Afghan forces will eventually turn up.

Even when they come, the police in particular are likely to be of dubious quality.

Then add another grim cloud on the horizon - that the British Army's local partners in two summers of heavy fighting in the province, the ANA 3rd Brigade of the 205th Corps, will soon come to the end of a three year enlistment period.

A large proportion of them are expected to take their opportunity to quit the grimmest part of the country.

The answer to these problems lies in growing larger, more professional, Afghan forces.

This is an explicit part of the new US strategy, which has set itself the ambitious total of more than doubling the ANA's size in less than two years.

But pressing problems, like securing this August's Afghan elections, keep intervening before the ANA is really ready.

Nato - and even the Americans with mid-term elections looming in November 2010 - does not feel it has time on its side.

On an admin note, I'm sorry to have broken off the blog after embarking on my leave. This one will probably be my solitary entry before my return to Newsnight duties in late August. In the meantime I'll be doing the usual family summer holiday thing, but also continuing with some unpaid leave, which I am devoting to a research project.


  • Comment number 1.

    A somewhat gloomy prognosis even in the short term - and one which is difficult to ignore.

    Key concern that I have n't heard anyone allude to is the sustainability of the sort of ANA force levels US strategy appears to call for. It's all very well building up the armed forces to the sort of mass that has been achieved in Iraq, but the Iraqis can almost certainly pay for it out of oil revenues. This is not the case in Afghanistan which suggests that simply fielding a competent ANA will be a huge financial burden, even when (if) they are in a position to assume more responsibility themselves.

  • Comment number 2.

    Boris Johnson talked about the UK buying their poppy crops or drug stuff they produce for medical purposes. Maybe he could offer up some of his chicken feed and donate the morphine to our hospitals:

    "There are about 250 members of the Afghan National Army (ANA)"
    Crikey what has karzai been doing since 04 and what are the Americans
    doing about this ?

  • Comment number 3.

    eight years after 9/11 we are in Afghanistan and losing, if the attackers in New York were Saudi nationals why are we in Helmond?

  • Comment number 4.

  • Comment number 5.


    "if the attackers in New York were Saudi nationals"

    Will Blogdog allow this link?

    Before you dismiss the idea, think Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair . . .

  • Comment number 6.

    "eight years after 9/11 we are in Afghanistan and losing, if the attackers in New York were Saudi nationals why are we in Helmond?"

    Because the Taleban allowed the terrorists to operate and gave them shelter. As an important US ally, Saudi Arabia takes a very dim view of terrorism and crack down pretty hard on it.

  • Comment number 7.

    British troops should be brought home immediately. This is not a war, its a UN arrangement to take turns at protecting underground oil and gas piplines. Just like Iraq, our reason for being there is based on a pack of lies. Meanwhile, our brave and trusting troops are the targets of those who believe we are invading their country.

    Politicians claiming that we are protecting Britain, by being in Afghanistan is a sick joke.

    Bring them home NOW and let them protect our own borders !

  • Comment number 8.


    Soldiers' deaths will not guarantee Helmand success That is very true and accurate...But, I would like to extend my condolences to the families affected....

    Enjoy your time in the Administration Note

    ~Dennis Junior~

  • Comment number 9.

    I only hope Gordon Brown or the Defence Secretary have not the bad taste to turn up to the funeral of Henry Allingham in a helicopter.


  • Comment number 10.

    The problem seems to me is that the Afghans are not prepared to help put their country in order. The whole issue of troop numbers and suitable equipment is not about what is needed for military victory by Nato forces. It is about putting the country into some sort of order which the Afghans themselves feel they can maintain with minimal support from outside. If we put too much in they will feel that they don't need to do anything, if we don't put enough in they will feel that a Taliban (or other dubious group)free country is unachievable so why try?

    It is for this reason that the real battle is for hearts and minds. One awkward question I have though is to ask if Afghanistan is a viable country? Would some form of partition produce a settled county for the majority?

  • Comment number 11.

    Seems to me that the ANA are another ARVN, totally underpenderable.
    We must send additional forces, not two thousand , but four thousand, if it means overstretch of the Army, then the government is going to have to " Bite the Bullet" and call up the some of the regular reserves. After all they claim that victory in Afghanistan is so vital to our security!
    We need to hold postions we clear, otherwise whats the point!
    Also more Armoured Personnel Carriers, Leased UH-60 BlackHawks and CH-47 Chinooks must be provided, UAV's and Towed 155mm Artillery must be brought!
    Either we are in this campaign to win or we should withdraw, We don't want to be humiliated, as we where in Iraq!

  • Comment number 12.

    An interesting and informed analysis as usual - one of the few BBC journalists I trust on Iraq/Afghanistan.

    ANA will be a slow process. ANP: many experienced people see some of them as being more part of the problem than part of the solution, Afghan trust and acceptance is less than complete.

    Just one area I think you missed.

    Historically Afghanistan experiences 'tipping points' by leaders switching sides, suddenly taking large numbers of fighters with them. Either by military means or financial deals there is always the option to both reduce taleban support and increase government support in one go. This can be large scale and rapid.

    One debate I have heard on this is the issue of 'decapitation strikes' - targetted bombs or special forces hits taking out key taleban leaders. This has apparently been very effective. Good idea? - it does disrupt them.

    But are we killing the people we need to bring over? In northern irelan it was the old guard of IRA leaders who eventually came to the negotiating table. Are we actually killing the people who might do that in afghanistan?

  • Comment number 13.


    On an admin note, I'm sorry to have broken off the blog after embarking on my leave. This one will probably be my solitary entry before my return to Newsnight duties in late August. In the meantime I'll be doing the usual family summer holiday thing, but also continuing with some unpaid leave, which I am devoting to a research project.

    I hope that the project you will be working on; Will be made available to the public....

    =Dennis Junior=


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