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In Helmand province to assess claims of progress

Mark Urban | 18:23 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

LASHKAR GAH - While the turmoil in the Arab world continues to dominate the headlines, I have made a beeline for Helmand province in Afghanistan.

This town is its capital. This afternoon, I was out in the Bolan Bazaar, which was a riot of oranges, nuts, cell phone cards, and all manner of merchandise.

It is not that I have a deliberate desire to avoid North Africa or the Gulf, and the extraordinary events going on there (far from it); it is more that these trips take time to organise.

This one has come up after months of preparation, and when good opportunities are available I don't like to miss them.

The main mission of the BBC team I am with here is to gather material for a special one hour documentary charting the history of the Western intervention in Helmand since 2005.

But I will also be preparing something for Newsnight that we hope to put out in the next few weeks.

There has been quite a lot of talk of progress here in recent months.

There have been false dawns before, so even though the conversation now tends to be littered with caveats it is nevertheless beginning to assume a steady up beat pattern.

You could easily argue that there ought to be progress because the resources now being thrown into this fight are enormous.

There are more than 30,000 Nato troops in Helmand and Afghan security forces nearing 20,000.

The Soviet army garrison here was just 2,500, with its Afghan allies numbering about twice that number.

Today's foreign intervention is much more ambitious in its scope though. Whereas the Soviet army simply aimed to hold this town and the nearby commercial centre of Gereshk, Nato is trying to pacify the whole province, while improving its poor governance.

So, my task in the coming days will be to see whether this effort is indeed bearing fruit, as its advocates claim.


  • Comment number 1.

    Good luck, m8!
    I`m looking forward to hear from you!!
    The problem is that I don`t trust Army reports, American news agys and politicians to give me an accurate report and a reliable one.

  • Comment number 2.

    Hope you can get a good feel for how it's going, time is getting short, before our forces begin to withdraw, it's especially important as General Perteraus is about to leave, it will be interesting to see who the US appoints to replace him.

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm looking forward to your report.
    I've heard various comments about Helmand, but I keep thinking:
    What difference does it make whether western forces are making progress in Helmand?
    It seems to me that the real question is can the progress, will the progress, be maintained when western troops have been withdrawn. After all, this is "home" for some Taliban; they will be here long after the west is gone. Isn't that the futility of any success?

  • Comment number 4.


    Tyrants 'kill their own people' - Terrorists kill others, anywhere in the world.

    Are we, perhaps, 'WITH THE TERRORISTS'?

    Shock and Awe! It seems we are.

  • Comment number 5.

    I am reading reports that voice concern about a possible "strategic treaty" between the United States and Afghanistan.
    The deal appears to be remarkably similar to the United States placing a permanent military presence in Iraq - only now it is Afghanistan.
    This seems to be tantamount to: once inside a country, the Americans never leave. The Americans position themselves to interfere in the victim country's internal affairs.
    The United States reportedly plans to set up permanent bases in Afghanistan to keep US troops in Afghanistan well beyond the 2014 withdrawal deadline.
    Afghan President Hamid Karzai has not yet agreed; he said any long-term American presence would need to be approved by the parliament.
    I don't imagine that Afghans can possibly be happy about this.
    The decade-long war in Afghanistan has become very unpopular due to the rising death toll among both Afghan civilians as well as the use of drones.
    The US currently has @ 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. The total number of coalition forces in the country is @ 150,000. This of course, does not include private contractors.
    Does this latest news impact on the Helmand situation?

  • Comment number 6.

    #5 - BluesBerry

    "Does this latest news impact on the Helmand situation?"

    Of course it does. If the Americans are going to turn Helmand into a business enterprise, the British will no longer be wanted - God forbid that we should derive any commercial advantage - which will leave us free to go and die for the good ol' USofA in some other hell hole instead. Or maybe grow up and know when we are being had? Noooo! Surely not.

  • Comment number 7.

    Afghan clerics are hugely upset. The Afghan People are hugely upset.
    What has caused this upset?
    US plans to build military bases in key locations of Afghanistan; in other words, American presence in Afghanistan (like Iraq) will be forever and a day.
    City of Herat, Farooq Husseini in his sermon: "The sworn enemies of Islam are after dividing Muslims and they spare no efforts to achieve this goal."
    The American plans have provoked anger among the people of the country, rubbed salt into injuries of many families affected by the foreign forces' blind and endless droning.
    Husseini said that the US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in 2001; thye did this under the pretexts of 'war on terror' and fighting drug trafficking, but the country has witnessed great civilian collateral damage while violence and drug abuse are now worse than ever.
    Will Afghanistan tolerate indefinite American presence? Is this not its own sort of dictatorship - American dictatorship?
    According to Husseini: Those foreigners who are planning to rule this people should know that Afghans have never been, and will never be, forced to serve occupiers. He said people in Afghanistan are well aware that the pain they suffer is due to this foreign military; the Afghan People want the foreigners gone.
    People went to the polls; they elected their head of state to protect Afghans' rights and bring peace to the war-weary people of Afghanistan...What else do they have to do? When is it enough?
    When do the foreigners go home?
    Will it take an Afghanistan "day of rage"?

  • Comment number 8.

    NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen convened an emergency meeting of NATO’s main decision-making body, the North Atlantic Council. The Council met in Brussels to discuss how it should react to what is going on in Libya.
    Before I proceed further, I think I should mention that the Chief Military Commander of European Command is also the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. US Admiral James Stavridis occupies both positions.
    There is only one nation in Europe that is not either a member of NATO or engaged in a partnership program with NATO, and that country is Cyprus. Every single nation is either a NATO member or engaged in a transition program.
    There are 152,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, a much larger figure than during the Soviet intervention. 140,000 of these are under NATO’s International assistance command; therefore, you have 140,000 troops from 50 nations - all under American leadership.
    The Pentagon confirms that the US is going to deploy a military base in Pakistan. So you have a US-NATO military infrastructure in South-Asia. In addition, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai stated that the US is seeking permanent military bases in Afghanistan. I suspect these will be built into strategic airbases near the Iranian border (following the Iraqi model).
    So, it seems to me that you have a self-appointed US-dominated military that is of the opinion that it has the right to address and maybe to intervene with military force for about 100 different reasons, none of which has anything to do with the military threat to NATO as a whole. There is also no question that the dominate partner of the alliance is the United States of America. Every single supreme commander in Europe is American.
    Lastly, it seems to me that whether or not Helmand is making progress, some day, perhaps sooner than expected, Afghanistan will also have its day of "rage" because the military ruling them is not even Afghan.
    Are you getting some feel for this in Helmand?

  • Comment number 9.

    As things get worse with NATO (Crimes), is it making a difference in Helmand?
    Hundreds of people chanted “Death to America” protesting in Kabul - surely a sign of simmering anti-western hatred.
    Some protestors carried pictures of their dead and bloodied children.
    A rare public apology from the top two US military officers in Afghanistan followed to which Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that apologies were “no longer acceptable”.
    US President Barack Obama expressed his “deep regret” over the killings while the United Nations called for a review of air strikes by foreign forces in Afghanistan.
    Interestingly, several women were also among the protesters. Shouting and yelling, some women chanted: “We don’t want Americans! We don’t want the Taliban. We want peace.”
    Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have risen 20% to 6,250 in the first 10 months of 2010 compared with 2009.
    Some women chanted: “We don’t want Americans! We don’t want the Taliban. We want peace.”
    So, Mark, how are things in Helmand? To tell you my truth, I cannot foresee any real hope for progress.
    Some women chanted: “We don’t want Americans! We don’t want the Taliban. WE WANT PEACE.”

  • Comment number 10.

    6 - you

    I have just noticed the above post which is attributed to me. I wish to make it absolutely clear that I am not to originator of the post ans repudiate it's tone and content. In the improbable event that moderation involves real human beings, justify yourselves for this disgraceful error.

  • Comment number 11.

    I understand that IED's planted by the Taliban have caused far more civilian casualties than military personnel.

    It would be interesting to find out if this is causing the local population to peel away from supporting the Taliban.

    It is to the great credit of journalists such as Mark Urban, that they are prepared to go to these very dangerous places and report on what they find.

  • Comment number 12.

    International Norouz Day was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in a resolution last year at the initiative of several countries - Afghanistan, Albania, Azerbaijan, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, India, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. Representatives of the said countries celebrated Norouz ceremonies at the United Nations headquarters in New York on March 21.
    Having opened on this celebratory note, I condemn the foreign military presence of troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya; hegemonic powers create wars and instigate unrest; they do both to serve their own imperial interests. Hegemonic powers do not hesitate to violate the rights of other nations; they provoke wars; they kill. If only we could outlaw hegemony!
    The insult: Protesters overwhelmed security guards at the UN office in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif; they burned parts of the compound; they climbed walls to topple a guard tower.
    Afghan officials said at least 11 people were killed, including seven UN staff. The throat of one of the dead foreigners was slit.
    UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned the violence in Mazar-i Sharif as "outrageous and cowardly". On whose part?
    Afghan President Hamid Karzai said it was inhumane and against Islamic and Afghan values. What was?
    "Outrageous and cowardly?"
    Demonstrators had gathered to protest that an evangelical pastor burned a copy of the Muslim holy book in the US. The pastor's "Judge The Qur’an day" drew widespread international condemnation...but NO apology.
    The next day, fighters clad in burkas attacked a coalition base in Kabul with guns and rocket-propelled grenades; they were killed either when they detonated their explosives or by Afghan or coalition fire.
    What do these attacks say?
    They’re saying that Americans, Europeans and United Nations staff must take a very tough stance when it comes to the desecration of Islamic symbols and Afghans have not seen this. Muslims have not even heard a statement from the UN or the Americans.
    This is why they’re trying to converge in the main cities, in particular in areas where there are military bases and UN offices, to send a very strong signal that they are really angry about the desecration.
    Terry Jones, an American pastor, created a controversy after he announced that he would burn copies of the Qur’an on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks last year. Under pressure from political leaders, Jones “suspended” the event; however, on March 20, Jones oversaw the burning of a copy of the Muslim holy book by another pastor, Wayne Sapp.
    Many Afghans only found out about it when Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, condemned the desecration four days later.
    Sapp called the deaths in Mazar-i-Sharif “tragic,” but said he did not regret the actions of his church. HE DID NOT REGRET the actions of the church! What kind of church shows such disrespect to another religion?
    “I in no way feel like our church is responsible for what happened,” Sapp said.
    Protests also broke out on Friday in Kabul and Herat in western Afghanistan. However things were in Helmund, this insult should be a major setback, an insult, a cowardly and outrageous blasphemy by Sapp and Jones.


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