How to win Helmand
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.