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How to win Helmand

Mark Urban | 14:00 UK time, Thursday, 19 June 2008

Now that British troops in Afghanistan have been boosted once again, it's worth asking whether anyone knows how they might win in Helmand, let alone across the whole country. Elected politicians take the decisions in the British set up, they make policy too, but it is pretty clear that they are heavily dependent on their civil servants or military officers to define their choices.

The days are long gone when defence secretaries like Peter Carrington (Conservative) or Denis Healey (Labour) could strike terror into poorly prepared officers - both men had won the Military Cross in the Second World War. Today's incumbent, Des Browne, has the best grasp of the Afghan issue of any cabinet minister, but these days key choices are often made by senior officers, and ratified afterwards by politicians.

It is a bitter irony that John Reid, the Defence Secretary at the time of the costly 2006 decision to fight in the upland valleys of Helmand, was told about it after it was made by officers on the ground, yet is remembered for having expressed the hope that British troops would perform their mission in southern Afghanistan without firing a shot.

So who are the people really directing the British campaign, and what do they hope to achieve? There are half a dozen key figures in the formulation of current plans. These include: Brigadier Mark Carlton-Smith, currently commanding British troops in Helmand; Sir Sherard Cowper Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul; Lieutenant General Sir Nick Horton, Chief of Joint Operations, the senior UK-based officer overseeing what's going on; Lieutenant General Peter Wall, the Deputy Chief of Staff and link man between senior commanders and politicians; and Hugh Powell, a civil servant, of whom more later.

Each British brigade going to Helmand has its own battle plan. Since few believe it would be right for a rigid template to be imposed from Whitehall, many defend passionately the ability of the man on the spot to do things his way - what the army calls 'mission command'. The problem is, that the army changes its brigade every six months and different commanders have very different ideas.

Last summer, under the aegis of 12 Brigade, the approach was tough and pro-active - or 'kinetic' to use the current Nato buzzword. One officer preparing to deploy this April told me, "they would start each presentation to us with a slide of how many million bullets they had fired or thousands of shells, I thought it was totally wrong".

Over the winter 52 Brigade struck a very different tone, it's commander, Brigadier Andrew McKay telling his officers, "body counts are a particularly corrupt measurement of success". Brig McKay produced an 'Operational Design' for the campaign which has dominated recent thinking about how Britain might succeed, it cautioned, "the more force is used the less effective it is and counter intuitively the more we engage in force protection the less secure we may be".

With its plain declaration that, "winning is how we out-think, compete with and wrestle consent of the population from the insurgent", Brig McKay's blueprint found favour with London, which longed for a less kinetic approach and also with Nato allies. Just last week I heard a senior official from another country bemoan the lack of a plan like Brig McKay's for Afghanistan as a whole.

Events though do not stand still. The additional troops now being sent include more 'force protection' (additional armoured vehicle and helicopter crews), something which seemingly flies in the face of Brig McKay's emphasis on contact with Afghans instead of force protection. His successor, Brig Carlton Smith knows though that too many British soldiers are being killed by booby traps, as the Taliban change tactics, and the political logic is that the troops should be less exposed. With Tuesday's loss of four near Lashkar Gah, the total of British troops killed in action has risen to 20, all but two of these lives being claimed by bombs.

In both Whitehall and Kabul they don't want Britain's military policy to meander about like the Helmand River, curving to and fro, more kinetic, less kinetic and so on. So Hugh Powell has been sent out, a Foreign Office man who until recently was in charge of security policy.

Mr Powell has taken up residence in the capital of Helmand Province, and outranks the army's brigadier. The military are not at all happy about it, they fear a divided chain of command, with the Nato military authorities pulling one way, and Whitehall, through its anointed representative on Afghan earth, Mr Powell, pulling another. His posting will last two years, long enough, the government hopes, to give continuity impossible with the army's six month tours. Long enough also, some subversive civilians declare, to drag the soldiers away from fighting, which at times during the past two years they appear to have relished too much, and drive the effort towards reconstruction.

At the end of this all then, the ideas about how to win Helmand are pushed and pulled between several key policy makers. They are contested by a cast of characters that shift and move according to government or service postings. As for the high level picture - a British Afghan Czar or supremo who can think long term about the big picture, you will not find one.


  • Comment number 1.

    This may be a "sensitive" issue.

    But I would have thought, with no expertise, that the Pakistan issue was the issue that most determined long run success. Bush appears to have been fairly passive on it - so I assume that there could be chain reactions if the US ploughs over the border to take out training bases etc.

    So if Obama has suggested just that I wonder if there is a military view, unofficially, and whether that tallies up with the diplomatic view.

    I find the whole alliance attitude to Pakistan very ambiguous and I think the attitude of Musharraf to the alliance is also ambiguous in my humble view.

    The problem with the McKay plan would seem to be how do you fight a hearts and minds campaign until you have sufficient military control.

  • Comment number 2.

    The appointment of the Foreign Office Civil Servant Peter Howell seems odd to say the least. Your intimation is that he is there to provide direction and continuity for military policy in the region. However I thought such responsibility rested with the MOD, the Dept of State that oversees military policy and practice everywhere and at all times. It is not their responsibility to ensure that any military activity is carried out in accordance with overarching Political and Foreign Policy objectives set by the Government ? Under MOD direction, a command chain should be set in place to ensure that political and military direction is properly exercised whilst Commanders in the field have the necessary freedoms to enable them to make maximum use of their resources to get the job done. Just where is Peter Howell intended to fit into this system. Is he there as a representative of the FO, if so in what capacity exactly ? Does he have the authority to give military direction, if so what qualification does he have for that and where will he fit into the command chain. To whom does he report and from whom does he receive his own direction. How does he relate to the diplomatic team already there etc. Sorry lots of questions but as I said earlier, this seems odd !

  • Comment number 3.


    I strongly suspect that we British, after years of colonial might and military power, have failed to reset the hubris altimeter to zero. We have lost all sight of the ground.
    Miliband is the current indicator of the British Disease of assumed rightness and competence. There is just nothing he cannot do! Our history speaks of: 'The 1st Afghan War' and 'The 2nd Afghan War'.
    That would make this 'The 3rd Afghan War'. You might expect them to be pretty, viscerally, hacked off by now? Yet we seem to think they were born yesterday - having no history or memory. It's bizarre. Today some proud British uniform was glowing about the Afghan army that WE ARE TRAINING. He did not call them quislings, but I 'know' a man who will. When we finally have had enough (as Long John Silver once threatened) 'The dead will be the lucky ones'. There HAS to be a better way. Based on human psychology and British humility. I despair of the lunatics running this asylum, they seem unaware of their own shortcomings - only seeing those imagined in others.

  • Comment number 4.


    Further to my #3 above, Hilary Benn encapsulated everything I have raised (here and elsewhere) by vehemently denouncing the Taliban because they: FORCE THEIR VIEWS ON OTHERS BY VIOLENCE! (Apparently they remove heads personally, when the proper way, I gather, is with high explosive. And they smash infrastructure from ground level, when, ethically, I infer, it should be done from high altitude.) Poor Wedgie, what did you do to deserve this plonker?

  • Comment number 5.

    The thinking that would align the domains of "diplomacy" and brigade-level military tactics might be reexamined.

    Is there anyone willing and able to explore the issues raised by the unpaid commentators above?

    Iran is an issue that cries for John Simpson-level diplomatic analysis.

    The urban populations have mullah-fatigue and long for Western contact. The government has made overtures for broad talks.

    Overcome by the NeoCon/Israeli drumbeat, many in the West call for boycott and attack, citing the rhetoric of a no-longer popular politician and neglecting the measured statements of Iran's supreme leader.

    The Christian Science Monitor has recently published much from inside Iran, Would it be too much to hope that the BBC might do the same?

  • Comment number 6.

    short to medium to long term We should be buying the afghan poppy harvest, cut out the middleman/talibanman man, British farmers growing poppys because of drug shortages what is that about. A lot of private contractors making a lot of dosh out there spending their guvvomits aid money on schools etc all sub standard all a big con. numero uno

    our children being murdered by the taliban in iraq afghanistan and murdered by buy heroin in the uk

    Why do we all hate kids I luv em used to go to school wiv em
    I like food eat nuffin else sometimes.
    could do with chewing the house of commons and spitting /*hitting them out

  • Comment number 7.

    yes, I agree, Pakistan's stance is crucial. But how to get success ? The American alliance is very unpopular in Pakistan, so overt pressure is counter-productive. In the eighteen months prior to February's elections, the Pakistani military also paid a heavy price for confronting militant groups in the tribal areas. Now the new civilian government is trying dialogue. Who knows how the secret negotiations will turn out but even if successful, my hunch would be a more peaceful situation in Pakistan, possibly with greater cooperations against Al-Qaeda foreign fighters, but die hard fighters looking elsewhere for jihad - and where better than Afghanistan ?

    the chain of command is complex. The British TF Helmand is actually under Nato operational control. It's commander reports via an operational Nato route (Reg. Command South - ISAF Kabul - Nato Supreme Headquarters) but also via a national command route (to PJHQ in UK where Lt Gen Horton sits). Hugh Powell, as I understand it, is meant to report to the British Ambassador in Kabul, and via him to London. They hope he will be able to improve the 'non-military effect' such as reonstruction, good governance, getting it to dovetail better with the security strategy. The fact that these arrangements take so many words to describe (even in summary) is not a hopeful sign...

    Imperial policing 19th Century style certainly requried a sense of our own superiority. Today we are in Afghanistan as part of a multi-national coalition. There is an inherent sense of superiority there too - if only in the amount of wealth we have or the standards of governance we expect in our own societies.

    Xie Ming
    we will doubtless get on to Iran here soon enough, so stick around.

    there's lots of interest in the idea of buying opium resin from the famers. I talked to people on the ground about it, most of whom are worried that this would just cause the farmers to cultivate more and more poppy. At the rate food prices are rising, the smart money in the NGO/governmental world on people coming up with ways to incentivize growth of crops like wheat instead of poppy, but initially alongside it.

  • Comment number 8.


    Oh dear, either I expressed my point very badly (I have been told I am obscure) or Mark Urban read me very quickly.
    My best plan is to stop while I'm losing; thanks anyway Mark.

  • Comment number 9.

    At last ! Someone I trust writing about S'tan.

    What I want to know is the real state of things between ourselves and the Americans - are they as bitter as the blogosphere suggests ? I'm not looking for any anti US rants just info about a crucial relationship for us that might just be lost along with this campaign.

  • Comment number 10.

    Re: Americans of the USA

    Consider that about a third are true-believing fundamentalists. (Because that is they way they were conditioned as children).

    Consider that the popular media there are paid minions of the plundering classes.

    Their thought processes are conditioned to the catch phrase and thirty-second sound byte.

    Withal, they want to be idealistic and bring their happy truth to the rest of those backward foreigners in the World.

    The imaginary world of the public discourse does not permit them to realize that Iraq was for oil, Israel and advanced bases.

    Just as almost none learned that the Spanish-American War was conjured up by three plotters who wanted coaling stations for a commercial adventure in China.

    Can the fog ever be penetrated?

  • Comment number 11.

    If we MUST be involved, either drop packages or very strong crack cocaine for the fundamentalists, or nuke the lot!

  • Comment number 12.

    how do you mean relations via a via the Americans ? Do you mean in Afghanistan specifically, or more widely ? Also the picture tends to vary at the level of the ordinary soldier, where both sides are a bit suspicious when they meet up but usually end up getting on very well, and the command or governmental level.

  • Comment number 13.

    The British army is virtually unique in the world in that we have a virtually flawless record of winning low intensity conflicts (guerilla wars).

    We did a superb job in Malaya, in Cyprus and in Oman. We won in Ulster in suprisingly similar circumstances to Afghanistan (the IRA used the border with the republic the same way the Taliban use the Pakistani frontier).

    The only way we can win in Helmand is to do what we've always done: win hearts and minds (build hospitals, treat local sick, build bridges and wells) and fight the enemy more brutally than he himself fights. To do this and to avoid 'collateral damage' that causes us to lose the hearts and minds of the locals this means sending light infantry to close with the enemy and bayonet him, not bomb him from 20,000 feet with B52s.

    #6 is spot on. If we BUY the opium, use what we need for medicinal use and dump the rest in the sea, it'll be both cost effective and help with the hearts and minds.

  • Comment number 14.

    #10 "The imaginary world of the public discourse does not permit them to realize that Iraq was for oil, Israel and advanced bases."

    Why does Israel have to come into everything? Iraq probably posed less threat to Israel than any other country in the mid-east. If America was to invade anywhere for Israel it would be Syria or Iran, not Iraq.

    The REAL reason America invaded Iraq was to station troops on the border with Saudi (your advance bases). Thats where the 9/11 attackers came from, its where Bin Ladin probably is (have you noticed a sudden halt in the bombings in Saudi and the fact that Bin Ladin has suddenly stopped calling for an overthrow of the house of Saud....) and with 13M barrels of oil a day coming out of its sand its a better bet than the bare 2M Iraq can pump. They can't invade the Kingdom without starting a massive jihad but they can threaten from just north of the border.

  • Comment number 15.

    What I was getting at Mark is that an extremely unflattering image of the British Army is emerging amongst the legion of armchair generals in the American Blogosphere, many of whom claim access to serving Americans at all levels in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both James Fergusson and Patrick Bishop's accounts of Herrick 4 talk about some serious tension betwen ourselves and the Americans. Has this been sorted out ?

  • Comment number 16.


    OK now I get you. With the Brits and the US military you have two professional cultures that each think they know best. Inevitably there are tensions, but also, inevitably, they usually find ways of getting along pretty well at the working level.
    The British negative perceptions tend to centre on the 'trigger happy' cultural stereotype, the inflexibility of some American officers, and US reluctance to give others equal weight in decision making.
    The American equivalents of these prejudices are: that the Brits are too slow or timid in combat; the British officers go their own way + never serve long enough in Iraq of Afghanistan to make a difference (Brit 6 month tours vs US 12 or 15); and that the Brits are to quote one US general 'impossibly conceited'.

    The situation in Helmand in 2006 (Herrick 4) was that the US had responsibility until the British arrived, when everything seemed to go mad - hence recriminations. As time has passed, the Americans have realised that things were quieter in 2004 and 2005 because the Taliban were essentially un-challenged in Helmand.

    Lately things have changed again. I sense a disquiet among British high ups that the Americans are doing rather better in Iraq and Afghanistan than we thought they would. Remember also that the US Marines are now helping the UK in southern Helmand.

  • Comment number 17.

    Not surprised at the disquiet - I understand ( from the Abu Maqawama blog) that when the Americans rewrote their COIN doctrine we were invited to contribute but couldn't (couldn't bother ?) find anyone to send over.

    Anyway thanks for responding and keep your head down next time your out there !

  • Comment number 18.

    Mark, Thanks

  • Comment number 19.

    While key personnel for the war effort are listed, there is no mention if there is a point person for the peace building as well.

    One among many key topics Newsnight ought to cover is to investigate how US and UK funds are spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan.

    Will Newsnight invite some knowledgeable people to draw attention to some development related facts too?

    Can we learn what a common Afghan gets from the supposed reconstruction efforts?
    Out of every £100 in U.K. taxpayer money spent in Afghanistan has gone to Afghan civilian reconstruction (not counting the cost of the security forces).

    Once we get to a figure, we also need to look at the cost of private security which eats up much from this expenditure, so are there any figures to tell the viewers what actually gets spent on civilian reconstruction in Afghanistan?

  • Comment number 20.

    the person in charge of the reconstruction and governance effort is, effectively, Hugh Powell.
    Your questions about the size of the UK reconstruction effort and where the money goes are good ones. It is a subject worthy of investigation for the future. In as far as I have already probed these areas I would suggest that both the Coalition total spend on reconstruction and the amount devoted to private security contracts are far less than in Iraq.

  • Comment number 21.

    Excellent comentary - I always find your reports several steps above the average coverage of Afghanistan on rest of the BBC.

  • Comment number 22.

    Everything you probably know about this war is a total sham. Everyone who fights against the occupational forces is labelled either a terrorist or an insurgent. When have you ever heard the phrase "afgan freedom fighter" or even "Iraqi freedom fighter". This can only mean one thing, that the BBC coverage is politically slanted into teaching that everyone in afganistan is loving the British and American forces.
    If you want to know the truth about Afganistan and why we are there just google afgan pipeline.
    The Americans were trying to get a pipeline built across Afganistan, the Taliban who were uptil this point friends with the Americans declined their offer and what do you know the Ameicans suddenly got involved in human rights and terrorism and bombed and killed 1000's of innocent people. While your on google check out depleated urainium, that will really make you lose your hair when you see what our wonderful troops are doing to the general population.
    All this debate about who to slove Afganistan cant be done until everyone knows the truth about how and why this war started, who is to blame. Dont take my word for it, do your homework and stop being spoon fed rubbish on the news, grow up and find out the facts or stay in your little bubble, dont fall over the edge of the world.

  • Comment number 23.

    p.s. sorry I cant spell for toffee!


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