Afghan forces face 'decisive' battle in Helmand

Justin Rowlatt
Chief environment correspondent
@BBCJustinRon Twitter

image copyrightAP
image captionThe Afghan assault on Sangin is critical for the future of Helmand, military sources say

Since 2001, 456 British military personnel have died in Afghanistan - all but seven of them in Helmand.

It is the most dangerous province in the country.

The only way for foreigners to visit safely is with the military, but neither the Afghan army nor coalition forces have been keen to host journalists since Nato troops withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.

The reason is pretty obvious. Since Afghan forces took over the battle against the Taliban, they have been steadily losing ground in Helmand.

But, after months of nagging and cajoling Resolute Support - the ongoing Nato effort to "train, advise and assist" the Afghan military - I got a surprise call inviting me to travel to Helmand.

That's how I found myself flying over the lush green poppy fields either side of the Helmand River in a Black Hawk helicopter.

Our destination was what is left of Camp Bastion. Bastion was the main British base in Afghanistan, the stronghold from which some of the most vicious fighting of the entire Afghan conflict was conducted.

The base cost billions of pounds to build and operate and, at its peak, was the size of Reading.

Camp Bastion

image copyrightPA
  • Bastion was a sprawling, well-fortified British-run base the size of the town of Reading and home to 30,000 people
  • It had its own water bottling plant, hospital, police force and even a Pizza Hut
  • It was widely regarded as a safe haven for troops
  • However, in 2012 a Taliban attack breached the perimeter and resulted in the death of two US Marines
  • Its airfield was busier than either Luton or Stansted in terms of aircraft movements including helicopters

Source: BBC/MoD

What remains is the headquarters of the Afghan Army in Helmand - Camp Shorabak - and a compound run by Resolute Support.

One thing has not changed: Helmand is still the key frontline in the battle against the Taliban.

However, the record of Afghan forces here has not been good.

They have made a series of what they call "strategic withdrawals" from key towns. They are a roll call of places British troops gave their lives to defend, such as Sangin, Musa Qala and Nad Ali.

image copyrightPA
image captionAll but seven of Britain's military deaths in Afghanistan were in Helmand

So is strategic withdrawal just another way of saying surrender, I asked Brigadier General Andrew Rohling, the commander of Resolute Support.

"You are using terms like surrender," he said, laughing at my impudence. "I would say we have withdrawn from areas that they formerly held, yes. What we are saying is, OK, after this past year let's look at the capabilities of the Afghan army, let's look where they are best postured and let's help them get to a place where they can fight reasonably for the long term."

On the offensive

And the key test of whether it can do that began while I was in Helmand - a major offensive to retake Taliban-controlled parts of Sangin and the area around it.

"The operation started at two o'clock this afternoon and we are clearing villages all the way towards Sangin district," Brigadier General Mohammad Ghani, the chief of staff of Afghan forces in Helmand, told me as we stood in the high tech operations centre from which Afghan forces will control the battle.

The assault involves about 600 troops and is an entirely Afghan-run operation.

"A while ago we were in a defensive position," he said. "Now we are reconsolidating our forces to get on the offensive again."

But the Afghans can expect a tough battle. Sangin was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting British forces have experienced for decades.

This battle will be decisive in terms of the conflict in Helmand, one senior US officer told me privately.

If the Afghan assault succeeds it will be evidence that the Afghan Army is indeed becoming a more effective fighting force.

Fail, he warned, and they will need to rethink the entire strategic plan for this troubled province.

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