Can the Afghan army take the lead in battle?

Afghan army soldiers on operation
Image caption The limitations of the Afghan army, when it comes to standing alone and facing an insurgency, are still plain to see.

On a chilly winter morning just before daybreak, in northern Helmand, hundreds of Afghan soldiers are on the move.

The Afghan National Army is in the lead. Around 900 Afghan soldiers and police have flooded into this dusty corner of Helmand, just south of Highway One. They are searching for Taliban fighters; the Afghans outnumber their British advisors, nine to one.

The man in charge is Brig Gen Sheren Shah. He stands on the battlefield, brimming with self-confidence.

"Our foreign friends are in the back giving us support, but we know this place better, we know the language and only we can search the people and houses, not the foreigners," he said.

Earlier, in a briefing room, Afghan officers plotted the operation on a mud and rock map on the floor.

Ramshackle affair

British officers might be looking over their shoulders, but for the first time this is an operation that is Afghan-conceived and executed. With most British troops leaving at the end of 2014, this is the shape of things to come.

Image caption The Afghan "Warriors" have made pleasing progress, British army officials say

"We used to lead and they would follow. Now it's the other way around. Even if they make mistakes, it's better they do it while we are here, not after we left," one British officer explained.

On the ground, the general and his Warriors, the official name for Afghan soldiers, get off to a flying start. They are helped by the fact that many of the Taliban in the area are lying low for the winter.

In the past the Afghan army was a ramshackle affair, but these soldiers are better equipped and more organised than before. They are wearing full body armour and form orderly lines as they spread out across the area.

But in the background, sitting in armoured vehicles, are British soldiers.

They are here as advisors, but they are doing much more than just advising. They are making sure the operation does not fall apart, and are determined to pass control to Afghans as soon as possible. It is an acceleration of the handover, perhaps a hasty one.

The Afghans find 14 improvised explosives devices (IEDs) planted by the Taliban. But it is British vehicles, clearing the route for an Afghan push, that sustain damage when a number of the homemade bombs detonate.

Lt Col Bill Wright, of the Brigade Advisory Group, is pleased with progress, but still sees big gaps in Afghan readiness.

"At the lowest tactical level they are very good, it's the bigger pieces now, ensuring that they've got the capability to service all their vehicles, and get the spares systems up and running, the logistics up and running, to keep what is a huge army on the road and in the fight," he said.

As the operation draws to a close, it is clear that British and American troops are still the powers behind the fight in Helmand.

Most foreign troops do not leave for another couple of years, but the limitations of the Afghan army to stand alone, and face a determined insurgency, are still plain to see.

More on this story