BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban

Archives for November 2009

Helmand marines focus on job in hand not surge

Mark Urban | 18:45 UK time, Monday, 30 November 2009


CAMP LEATHERNECK, HELMAND - Ask the US troops here about the forthcoming announcement by President Barack Obama and you tend to get answers like, "oh that's way above my pay grade".

We're not talking about a private with a spanner tinkering under his Humvee - even colonels have given me much the same answer.

The president is expected to address the nation on Tuesday evening - an event that will fall in the early hours of Wednesday, Afghan time.


Most people are expecting a big increase in troop strength, with some talking about 34,000 to start, with an option on a further 10,000 in about one year.

As a large news organisation we are naturally interested in covering such a big escalation in the American military effort - a step that will brand Afghanistan, if it is not already labelled as such, "Obama's War".

In truth though, I cannot say that I have overheard anybody at this camp (which sits near Camp Bastion, the British base where I last blogged from) spontaneously discussing the troop uplift in their tent or chow hall.

As is often the case with an international "news event", we have had to go soliciting opinions on this.

Feelings of guilt

I expect there will be some discussion about the White House's announcement on Wednesday morning, but day to day here people just focus on the job they have got.

Combat operations go on beyond the wire, and the frequent arrival of casualty evacuation helicopters reminds us all of the grim reality that they are engaged in.

Inside the relative safety of this base, at the HQ of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, people beaver away, routinely working 18-hour days, seven days a week.

The amount of time they spend at their desks is a product of many things: American office culture; an expression of their commitment as marines; and a measure of soldierly guilt that they are not here in a fighting role, so must do everything they possibly can to work for their colleagues who are.

When you press them about the Obama announcement you do get answers. Some express a determination that the reinforcements should bring to an end the rural counter-insurgency here.

They want an answer of the kind that the Iraq troop surge of 2007 produced - a distinct change for the better that will lead to a long term reduction in US forces.

Need for local forces

Among US marine officers I have heard quite a bit of discussion about the need to get more Afghan troops into the field.


This country's limited ability to generate such forces is just one of the many differences between Afghanistan's situation and that of Iraq.

The slow time in which Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government can field its new forces is likely to be just one of the areas of tensions between it and the main Nato countries in coming weeks.

It may take many months for newly announced forces to start operating here, but the administration needs signs of progress quickly.

For that reason, US troops are trying to step up their pressure on the Taliban.

In the coming days we intend to get "outside the wire" to see that at first hand.

The struggle to maintain a reputation

Mark Urban | 13:04 UK time, Friday, 27 November 2009

CAMP BASTION - When I suggested to an old acquaintance from Iraq that Britain might soon seek a less risky role for its troops here I was surprised by the intensity of his response.


The officer, a middle ranking British type who normally adopts a cheeky grin and humorous banter, shook his head and gritted his teeth.

"We can't walk away from this one," he said, "that would be disastrous for the Army".

Before Britain can sign off in Helmand, he suggested, it will have to create a better outcome than it achieved in Basra in southern Iraq.

What he has in mind is an "end state" in which the current levels of violence have been quenched and the Afghan security forces are able to cope with little foreign help.

For many at the command level in the British Army, this result is essential because failure to achieve it would damage their international reputation.

Whose responsibility?

It might seem foolish or misguided to place the maintenance of your good name as a professional military as one of the key objectives in an operation in which so many lives are being lost or shattered, but it is something that everyone engaged in this campaign understands (even if some might not share this idea).

In an operation where the US is in the lead, and will shortly by the commitment of additional troops, place themselves even more so, few see the overall success of this mission as being Britain's responsibility.

Under these circumstances, keeping up the UK's reputation for military effectiveness does become a national objective.

Increasingly, as national support for the mission wobbles, this language about needing to maintain the country's international standing as a military power is entering the pronouncements of service chiefs.

Butt of jokes

What about the Poor Bloody Infantry? How do they feel about risking the IEDs and snipers in this cause?

Their language might be different but their national pride burns in an even more forthright manner.

Many a sergeant major or corporal has spent a career running down the armies of fellow Nato countries that they have served alongside.

They do not want British troops to be the butt of jokes or snide comments, as they sometimes were for the Americans in Iraq.

Speaking over the last couple of days to soldiers from 2nd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment (the Green Howards) about the risks they run in places like Sangin - the IED capital of Britain's patch in Helmand - they appear more than ready to continue the fight.

They do not share the war weariness of many at home - although they do speak frankly about the effectiveness of their enemies here.

Britain though is rapidly reaching the limits of what it can commit to Afghanistan. The troop total is creeping over 10,000 which is entering dangerous territory as far as the Ministry of Defence bean counters are concerned.

Under these circumstances the pattern of this year's operations has been for Britain to leave an increasing amount of this province to the Americans, focussing limited resources on a few key districts.

Growing US role

Here at Camp Bastion, the US side of the base is swelling by the day. The new presidential commitment to send many thousands more troops will accelerate the process of giving them more of the fight.

That's why on this trip I won't be joining British troops in the field but rather the US marines of Task Force Leatherneck.

The marines already control two thirds of Helmand and parts of the neighbouring provinces of Nimruz and Farah.

They are taking on their task with their customary energy and absence of doubt.

So, as the British Army tries to convince its home public that supporting the troops also means supporting their mission, the trend of reducing the area what the UK is responsible for may well continue.

I would not exaggerate this - it is not as if Britain's eventual "success", assuming that is what happens, will be confined to a pacified postage stamp sized areas of Helmand.

It does however mean that if some dramatic turn around is achieved here it will belong (in the eyes of many of those international military spectators that the British officer I mentioned at the start is worrying about) to the United States.

In search of a good writer

Mark Urban | 14:32 UK time, Wednesday, 25 November 2009

KABUL - As our plane wheeled over this mountain city, twilight was falling. The Afghan capital nestles among huge peaks - some of which exceed 4000m (13,123 feet). Arriving here is always dramatic in a sort of "I hope the pilot remembers where all the mountains are" sort of way.


I first flew in 22 years ago, when aircraft spiralled in to avoid the missile threat, and were nursed down to the terra firma by formations of Soviet gunships.

Whatever one may think of the mismanagement of President Hamid Karzai or the vicious insurgency, Kabul is still a place that has developed enormously in those past two decades.

Almost all of those improvements, from a fancy mobile phone system, to new roads, or flourishing businesses, actually came about in the eight years since the Taliban were driven out. So whatever the chorus of concern from those who hear you are coming here, it is still a pleasure to be back in Afghanistan.

What this country needs, slowly dragging itself up from being the poorest in the world, is a way of regaining lost political momentum. And if you are the man in charge, as Mr Karzai has been for most of the time since the Taliban fell, you cannot duck your responsibility for the whiff of corruption and electoral wrong doing that now hangs over the place.

Ashraf Ghani, former minister and presidential hopeful, was on the flight and we chatted. In response to the question of what happens next he argues that Mr Karzai is skilled at playing roles, but what he needs now "is a good writer".

Mr Ghani thinks both Afghan and international sides are "disfunctional" but need to find the right political narrative for the next few years. One thing is clear - that creating the right vision of a political horizon while cleansing the president's tarnished reputation is much more important than where to sink 30-40,000 more troops in this huge, unforgiving country.

Who can provide this new script? The US ambassador? Mr Karzai's staff?

Mr Ghani waves away each of my suggestions. While I sense that he sort of fancies himself for the role - and is undoubtedly being sounded out by the president in the more broadly based government he has pledged to create - the former minister eventually suggests that a new UN envoy is needed.

The current incumbent, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, is a sober international civil servant, rather than a man with Madison Avenue skills at selling a new, cleaned up, Afghanistan.


Who might do it better? It is not so long since Mr Karzai blocked the appointment of Lord Ashdown - presumably because he had too clear and emphatic a personal vision of the way ahead.

So the question of who can "fix" governance in Kabul remains central to what happens next, but unanswerable for the moment. If it turns into a team of writers - say a couple of Afghans, Americans and a UN figure - one imagines that General Stan McChrystal must be part of it.

For while the political manoeuvres take place in Kabul he and his Nato forces must hold down the Taliban revolt.

Of course, that is centred in the south which is where, after an all too brief stopover in this city, I am heading.

An Afghan Exit Strategy

Mark Urban | 18:57 UK time, Thursday, 19 November 2009

President Hamid Karzai's statement in his inauguration speech, that he expects Afghan security forces to be running operations across the country within five years, is the latest sign that an exit strategy is being formulated.

In itself Mr Karzai's statement might seem like little more than a pious hope - given the fact that his forces lose so many to desertion (around one quarter each year) that they are struggling hard enough just to maintain their current strength.

But his words follow those of Gordon Brown on Tuesday in his Mansion House address, when he hinted that an international conference might be held in London which might begin to set a timetable for the transition to Afghan control.

In between the Brown and Karzai statements came one from Barack Obama, saying that he did not intend to make the US military presence an open ended commitment that would need to be solved by his successor.

Combine the recent words from these three players and what starts looking likely is a conference at which the US troop reinforcement could be presented as part of a wider package that includes charting a pathway to Afghan security control, sets out reforms to the government of Afghanistan, launches an anti-corruption drive, possibly the formation of a new more broadly based government, and coordinates all of this with pledges of development assistance.

This may well mean that early next year there could be a big international moment - a conference of Afghans, donors and troop contributors that would set the future course in a way that has not been done since the 2001 Bonn Conference.

Mr Brown said on Tuesday that he was offering London as the venue. Whether this will appeal to the other participants is a moot point, since it smacks of Downing Street trying to set the international agenda in the run up to an election.

So will the US troop announcement have to wait until this conference, possibly in January? The ominous possibility that President Obama might leave it five months between receiving the McChrystal Report and endorsing the reinforcements needed to make it work seemed a little more real yesterday when he said that he would be announcing his decision in the next 'several weeks'.

Equally, it may be that Mr Obama (as many are predicting) makes an announcement after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend near the end of this month, or indeed before it upon his return from his Far East tour.

However, if the precedents of this long and tortuous policy re-think are followed he may well want to know more about how the international conference is taking shape, even if he does not wait for the event itself, before announcing his reinforcements.

But will it work in theory?

Mark Urban | 17:36 UK time, Monday, 16 November 2009

As the US and UK continue to debate how they might succeed in stabilising Afghanistan, most attention has focused on practicalities such as troop numbers, battling corruption, or improving the local police force.

However, on Sunday the British Army rolled out its new blueprints for how UK forces might work to stabilise a foreign country and what steps the forces should take to do so.

Some see a preoccupation with doctrine or strategy as a profane thing - a game of power point and smooth talking while the ugly reality of war blasts its way across Helmand.

But in truth, the sacrifice of those fighting an insurgency is likely to be in vain unless commanders and politicians know what they are trying to achieve and how they might reach what the soldiers call their "end state".

The bitter fight against the Iraqi insurgency provides simply the most recent and vivid example of what happens when a coalition trying to stabilise a situation proceeds via a series of blunders to make things worse and worse.

The US military however showed an ability to learn from its early mistakes, set out a new doctrine for counter-insurgency (in 2006, co-authored by General David Petraeus and General James Mattis), and implement it, bringing about a dramatic turnaround in security.

For the British the experience was doubly painful, because for quite a time in Iraq, their approach to the Americans was frankly patronising.

But after a while, with militia power growing under the British in Basra, while the Americans began to turn around some of the toughest places in Iraq, the "we wrote the book on counter-insurgency" attitude started to wear a little thin.

So now they have re-written the book, or rather put out two weighty volumes designed to make use of those difficult recent experiences and chart the way ahead in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Major General Paul Newton, who oversaw the writing of the manual Security and Stabilisation: The Military Contribution, had to put forward theories about how to deal with chaos and conflict.

Since most authorities agree, these situations require an ad hoc approach, the very idea of a manual on how to do it is tricky.

"Clausewitz had it about right", said Maj Gen Newton on Monday, referring to one of history's great military theorists, "warfare is the realm of the uncertain".

He also conceded that, "there's no such thing as a pan-Whitehall doctrine" on stabilisation.

Some worry that this is still the problem - the UK government is still not good enough at putting together what the forces do with what other agencies such as the Department for International Development or World Bank do.

The manual reflects then the Ministry of Defence's view about how this tricky business of stabilisation is best done.

As to the specifics, best follow the link, but if I tell you that the manual's definition of "stabilisation" alone runs to 54 words, you'll understand that it's no simple matter.

It is about bringing about a more orderly society without actually nation building.

The other publication - Field Manual Volume 1 Part 10, Countering Insurgency - is full of the more practical stuff about running military operations in places like Iraq or Afghanistan.

It is not on the MoD website yet, but you can read it here.

For those who seek it out, it actually provides essential context to why the forces fight the way they do in places like Helmand.

These two publications then represent a shedding of some past confusion or complacency about how the British military should attempt to leave ungoverned space a little more orderly by the time it departs.

How well these ideas will work, we will see in the unforgiving atmosphere of Afghanistan during the coming years.

Dissatisfaction at US failure to make troop decision

Mark Urban | 17:38 UK time, Friday, 6 November 2009

Prime Minister Gordon Brown's speech on Friday morning was intended to make the case for a continued British combat role in Afghanistan after another grim week of casualties.

But although he did lay out some new ideas, such as setting five benchmarks for improved performance by the Afghan government, the prime minister was limited to spinning the rhetorical rotors without actually taking flight.

The thing that has grounded him and other Nato leaders is the continued absence of a clear line from Washington.

How could Mr Brown have been more adamant about the current counter-insurgency strategy or the need for more troops to execute it, if he knows that at any time the White House might change its mind?

President Barack Obama received the McChrystal report calling for a troop surge on 30 August, and with each week that passes without a decision the political difficulties of his allies across Nato multiply.

When Britain announced in mid-October that it would, if certain conditions were met, send another 500 troops to Afghanistan, Whitehall felt it was on a promise from the Obama team.

As Newsnight reported at the time, one top insider suggested not just that Britain had been promised there would be a substantial US reinforcement, but that it would be General Stanley McChrystal's option of around 45,000 troops, and that its announcement was imminent.

So what does he say now? When asked recently, my contact characterised the continued lack of a clear statement of the way ahead from Mr Obama as, "disgraceful".

These views, given non-attributably, are simpler a stronger version of what one can see in the public domain.

Back in October Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, Britain's senior serviceman, insisted that the Allies were still all committed to the counter-insurgency strategy and that he was, "confident" he knew which way the US would go on the troop increase question.

In the absence of an announcement, confidence in ministries from Ottawa to Berlin is faltering.

"What is the goal? What is the road? and in the name of what?" asked French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner earlier this week, adding menacingly, "Where are the Americans? It begins to be a problem".

Field Marshal Lord Inge, speaking in a defence debate in the House of Lords earlier on Friday said the US' delay sent, "a very bad message".

Talking to Nick Horne earlier this week, home after several years working as an official for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in Kabul, he reckoned the Obama administration had carried out seven different reviews of Afghan policy.

From their electoral victory one year ago to the present, Afghan policy has been in a state of flux.

The criticism is not simply code for "Why doesn't Obama just get on with the troop increase"?

There are plenty in European governments who would be delighted if the president announced that the US intends to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

What people want is a decision.

Now the White House is suggesting that there could be an announcement in a fortnight's time. So the present limbo is set to continue.

It is all the stranger because Mr Obama has not yet endorsed the strategy set out in the McChrystal report, something Nato defence ministers did at a meeting two weeks ago.

The US' own defence secretary, Robert Gates, has called publicly for the matter to be resolved swiftly.

Some Obama supporters have stressed the importance of measuring such vital life and death decisions carefully.

Gen McChrystal himself has been loyal enough to his commander in chief to echo them, remarking that it is better it be done properly than rapidly.

The shambolic outcome of the Afghan presidential elections has complicated matters politically, but it hardly de-railed some great policy juggernaut that had been careering along smoothly until then.

Looking though at the succession of reviews and the tangled logic in the one definitive presidential statement on "Af-Pak strategy" given back at the end of March, it is evident that the administration has had great difficulty deciding what it thinks about the Afghan conflict.

Instead we have witnessed what people in Whitehall describe with increasing frankness as a failure of leadership.

Rudimentary nature of Afghan IEDs makes them so lethal

Mark Urban | 17:36 UK time, Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The death of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid underlines how critical bomb disposal operators have come to the Nato campaign in Afghanistan.

The numbers involved give some idea of how making Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs has become a major industry on Helmand Province.

During the first nine months of this year, British forces dealt with more than 4,000 IED incidents.

Thousands more bombs were either dealt with by other Nato forces, or blew up those planting them or locals and livestock.

As for those that remain undiscovered, it is anyone's guess how many there might be.

The next wave

Staff Sgt Schmid had defused 64 IEDs during the first five months of his tour.

Bomb disposal operators (that term covers officers and NCOs, men and women) are working flat out, more intensively even than at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Recently, Newsnight filmed with the next wave of bomb disposal people bound for Afghanistan.

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They were training at the Felix Centre at Kineton in Warwickshire.

Unusual people

Talking to instructors who had returned recently from Afghanistan, such as Staff Sergeant Stu Dixon who won the George Medal there, it is the rudimentary nature of so many of the Afghan devices that makes them so difficult to deal with.

Sometimes the pressure pads or trip devices made with bare bits of wire, and old lumps of wood will result in the slightest movement making an electrical contact, leading to the explosion.

Dealing with this threat on an almost daily basis requires a very unusual type of person as we discovered during our filming.

Tarnished Karzai knows he is indispensable once more

Mark Urban | 15:30 UK time, Monday, 2 November 2009


The leading contenders in Afghanistan's presidential election certainly have shown cunning.

Unfortunately their skills have helped their country little and brought the elections into disrepute.

President Hamid Karzai has been re-elected after his leading challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, pulled out.

Mr Karzai thereby did what the international community asked for - conceding the need for a second round of voting after claims of widespread vote rigging in the first - without having actually to fight it.

Dr Abdullah meanwhile has managed to tarnish his rival's victory by making a hue and cry about voting fraud in the first place.

When sufficient Karzai votes were disallowed to make a second round necessary, and the president had conceded that, Dr Abdullah withdrew.

Abdullah 'tarnished too'

The challenger himself had 300,000 votes disallowed so he was hardly blameless in first round rigging.

What is more few experts think that he would have won, even if the second round had been staged to the best international standards.

So rather than enhancing the sitting president's credibility by losing against him, Dr Abdullah has withdrawn, claiming fair elections were impossible.

Both men have displayed the Afghans' remarkable talent for nihilism.

Many foreign models have been trashed in Afghanistan, but their own governance only ever produced one of the world's poorest, and in recent decades, most war torn countries.

Strategic options

So where now? Mr Karzai has been congratulated on his re-election and the international community must now get along with him.

There will be some ideas about making further aid conditional on his rooting out corruption and getting the government to function better, but it will be very hard to compel him to do so.

Threats of withdrawing foreign forces are not credible - not yet anyway. In fact the logic of the strategic options now being considered suggests committing more troops and aid.

Since the president knows this, he will make the right sort of noises towards the Western powers, and maybe accept a national unity government or some constitutional reform.

But will he really follow through?

The Americans will have to work Mr Karzai hard, but carefully, during the coming weeks in order to get the best looking result they can.

But even if his government is no more than the vehicle for raising much larger security forces in order to make Nato's withdrawal from combat possible, Mr Karzai knows he is indispensible once more.

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