Cracking on in Helmand

Britain’s bloody campaign in Afghanistan has been marred by hubris, confusion and a failure to understand our Taliban adversaries
August 27, 2009
Read Anthony King's response to this article, "Why we're getting it wrong in Afghanistan," here

A cartoon was on the television but little Lilly grabbed the album and leafed through the photos of her father, the late Sergeant Lee Johnson. I was talking to her mother about his death, which I had witnessed in Afghanistan. When I saw Lilly up in Stockton-on-Tees last November, and I thought of my own young child, I struggled to reconcile my doubts about this war with wanting to remember Johnson’s death as honourable and meaningful.

Even in chaos and dysfunction, the British army is good at preserving a belief in order and purpose. And when men die their officers steel them and move onwards with poetic speeches, just as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson did on 10th July 2009, after a dreadful day near the town of Sangin in Helmand in which five of his men were killed. In his eulogy Thomson wrote about men saluting the fallen, and returning to the ramparts. “I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts, and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to ‘crack on’… And that is what we shall do.”

Crack on. From Basra to Sangin, I’ve heard that phrase as regularly as Amen in church. Cracking on: the army’s greatest quality, and perhaps its greatest weakness. I remember standing vigil on Sergeant Johnson’s body at dusk on a hilltop, after he had died in the battle for the town of Musa Qala in December 2007. His fellow soldiers were silhouettes, drawn close to their commander. On the horizon muffled bombs flashed through the drizzle. Major Jake Little told his men to put their grief to one side, to deal with it later. After the battle.

Cracking on could also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy. In the year I spent studying the Helmand campaign for my book, I sensed a questioning, a doubt about whether it was worthwhile. One senior Whitehall figure stunned me by declaring, almost as his first words, that Helmand “was a terrible strategic blunder.” His views were not uncommon.

The public debate has rarely reflected the mixed-up reality of the war. In July, when the number of dead since 2001 overtook the total in Iraq, the debate was couched as politicians versus generals. Our troops demanded more helicopters, reinforcements and money. All of that was true—when Sergeant Johnson’s comrades kept vigil over his body for 24 hours, it was because no helicopter was available to take him off the hill. And a day earlier, many Afghan civilians had died because there were no helicopters to ferry the injured to hospital. But more men and more choppers are not going to win this war, still less address its purpose. Neither the air cavalry nor legions of fresh troops defeated the Vietcong. Unless the strategy is fixed, reinforcement could well make things worse.

Britain’s new Afghan war began shortly after 9/11, with the deployment of special force units to support the US campaign against al Qaeda. But it was a Nato plan to extend the writ of the Kabul government across the country that brought Britain to Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province, in April 2006. Bloody as it was to be, the mission was defined initially in benign terms. John Reid, then defence secretary, emphasised reconstruction and a “development zone” in the centre of the province, with the 3,300 troops deployed to provide basic security. A commander from those early days told me that the British came equipped for defence, not attack. But from the start, the mission crept forward with dangerous confusion to include fighting terrorism, defeating an insurgency, rebuilding an economy, supporting the government and suppressing illegal drugs.

In spring 2006, a revolt was already underway across Helmand by those seemingly loyal to the former Taliban government. Though the rebellion was poorly understood, the imperative to defeat it pushed all other objectives to one side. Under Afghan political pressure, Britain’s limited combat strength was deployed to establish so-called “platoon houses”—defensive positions in towns across northern Helmand and around the Kajaki dam. It seemed, at the time, that unless the government was defended the rebellion could sweep across the entire south of the country. But this came at a cost. Under siege that first summer, the British defended their ramparts with heavy weapons and air power. The fighting reduced parts of Sangin to rubble, destroyed Musa Qala’s mosque, and drove the population out of other towns. Almost no meaningful reconstruction was carried out. The base at Musa Qala was eventually abandoned in a truce with the Taliban, but during the winter of 2006-07 the British clung on elsewhere. General David Richards, then Nato commander in Kabul (and now incoming head of the army), later told me that hanging on to these outposts had little strategic impact beyond helping to save face with the Afghans.

Within 18 months Britain’s forces had swelled to more than 7,000, giving commanders more room for manoeuvre. But for all that, the British were heading for stalemate. Ordered to engage in bloody “sweeps” along the Helmand river, the army would declare swathes of countryside “cleared” of the Taliban. But without the strength to hold those gains the Taliban, apparently cut down in their dozens, would creep back. Troops despairingly called these sweeps “mowing the lawn.”


It was during the following winter, in December 2007, that I first visited Helmand and witnessed Operation Snakebite: the battle to retake Musa Qala and the most important battle fought thus far in the Helmand campaign. After leaving south London on a Sunday, by Friday I was crouching in a ditch with enemy bullets ripping up the dust, wishing I was fitter.

This first attack was a British move on the outskirts of Musa Qala. It was a ruse to occupy the Taliban while US paratroopers landed elsewhere. The plan was typical of a Helmand engagement. We walked across an open, dusty field towards the village. They started firing and we dived to what cover there was. The gunfight underlined the complexity of the war. Five groups were firing at once: the British, the Afghan army, US special forces, US paratroopers and the Taliban. Amid all this were civilians trying to escape. By nightfall seven Afghans, including two children, lay dead.

The battle continued for three more nights. (Sergeant Johnson was killed a day later, by a mine.) From the desert outside we heard the thunder of artillery and air power as the US paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne fought from building to building to the town centre. The population and the Taliban slipped away. We walked into a ghost town, with fresh vegetables and bread lying abandoned on market stalls.

I met the then commander of British troops in Afghanistan, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, when he joined the Afghans as they raised their nation’s flag in the town centre. A thoughtful but blunt Scotsman, Mackay surprised me with his candour. That day he was exhausted but ebullient, having commanded the battle from a trench above the town (even his bodyguards had had to open fire). Sitting on the porch of a deserted shop, Mackay outlined the new approach he envisaged for the campaign. For all the destruction I had just seen, his emphasis was on what he called a “non-kinetic” approach, meaning less fighting. He denounced the body counts of dead Taliban, at the time still routinely announced in US press releases, as a “corrupt measure.” In this war, he said, “the population is the prize”—borrowing a slogan from David Galula, a founder of counterinsurgency (or COIN) theory.


The Musa Qala flag-raising was a turning point for the British campaign, something Mackay had conspired to achieve. At 50, he was one of the army’s oldest operational commanders. His was an upstart brigade plucked from non-operational status—previous duties included helping run the Edinburgh Tattoo—which also presumed to rethink Britain’s faltering strategy. Unafraid to dictate orders upwards, he came to be seen as troublesome, if perhaps right.

The big lie Mackay first identified—now belatedly recognised by Nato’s most senior commanders—was the way the “mowing the lawn” sweeps were viewed as a positive outcome, as they would have been in a traditional war. Faced with an enemy prepared to show its face in open combat (in contrast to most of the fighting in Iraq), the fallacy had taken root that this was more of a conventional than a guerrilla war. But this approach to warfare did nothing to tackle the roots of rebellion, and brought little but destruction. One young officer from Mackay’s brigade summed up the first 18 months: “You were talking about blokes put in unfair positions; 30 to 40 soldiers on a parapet dropping JDAMs [satellite-guided bombs] all around them night and day for weeks on end.” The effect on the local population had been disastrous, he felt. “There was no need for those blokes to die,” he confided. “We have gone backwards.” Commanders like Mackay, and also General Richards (who returned to London in 2007 having acquired the sobriquet “Richards of Kabul”), took a calculated gamble with their careers, and began to challenge the direction of the campaign. It was no good destroying a town and then arriving afterwards with cement mixers or wads of cash, as US doctrine seemed to imply.

The 2007 battle for Musa Qala became a test of Mackay’s doctrines. The aim was to take the town without knocking it down and by persuading the Taliban to flee, not fight. An attempt was made to stir up a tribal revolt, and for the assault no bombs or heavy weapons were permitted to be fired at the town centre. A plan for reconstruction was devised to begin on “day one” after the town’s recapture, and a battalion of Afghan troops was earmarked to garrison the town, with Nato troops kept out. After the victory, the US ambassador William Wood declared: “The eyes of the world will be on Musa Qala.”

Did it work? Not entirely. The military did its bit, taking the town with minimal civilian casualties. But even with President Hamid Karzai kept informed and large subsidies available, the civilian agencies, including Britain’s foreign office and development department, and the Afghan government came nowhere near to doing their part. Promised aid arrived at a trickle and the Afghan military provided too few troops. As Mackay would later reflect, a counterinsurgency campaign could separate insurgents from the population only with unity of military and civilian effort. But this was hardly an easy task with a mostly illiterate Afghan bureaucracy, and with little money trickling down to make people believe the Afghan government was a force for good. In May 2009, I got an email from a young officer just back from the frontline. He had read my book, and described the latest from Musa Qala: “Yes, there was a ‘rebuilt’ school, a few ditches dug and the medical centre will be the best for miles if it is ever finished but that is it. The foreign office lead in Musa Qala did not leave the base in the entire six months I was there.”

By the summer offensive of 2009 the army had begun to learn from its failed early strategy. The approach first seen under Andrew Mackay in Musa Qala had been adopted across Helmand, with greater emphasis on the needs of the local population. But, as Musa Qala showed, even this strategy had its problems, not least because of the limits of military power and the need for other agencies to do their part. And there was also another, perhaps more serious concern. Could the new approach, advocated by Richards but first seen under Mackay, address the causes of the rebellion when so many of this same population seemed to support the rebels?

Talking to soldiers in Helmand, it struck me how little they saw of their enemy. In combat, you would hear the Taliban’s bullets. It might be a crack and thump right by your ear, or the slower sub-sonic bullets described by a Royal Marine sniper as “like the sound of swallows in flight.” Sometimes their path could be traced by the flicking of corn stems in a field, or on a soldier’s cheek as the rounds scythed the blades of grass above him. Of the living enemy, however, most saw only a muzzle flash from a distant wall. Dead bodies, yes, but prisoners very rarely. There was little to give shape to who these people were. But in a guerrilla war, few questions matter more than your enemy’s motives. And one simple way to find out was to ask them.

Such talks had been standard practice in past insurgencies, including the 1950s Malaya emergency and Northern Ireland. But with the Taliban branded as terrorists few politicians would sanction a dialogue. While I was in Musa Qala, Gordon Brown declared that “we will not enter into any negotiations with these people.” One person, however, did try to talk. A few days after the Musa Qala battle, on Boxing Day in 2007, I heard the news of the expulsion of two foreign envoys from Kabul: an Irish EU official, Michael Semple, and another Irishman, Mervyn Patterson. Their crime, said President Karzai, had been illicit meetings with the Taliban.

Intrigued, I investigated further. Patterson worked for the UN and was an innocent fall guy, I learned. But Semple had indeed gone deep into the rebellion, holding talks with some 200 Taliban figures. Official policy sought reconciliation only with Taliban commanders prepared to change sides. Semple’s move to talk discreetly to active commanders—those killing Nato soldiers—was both difficult and dangerous. No one had attempted anything like this, never mind on this scale. “I probably got to meet more commanders than Mullah Omar himself,” he later told me.

I visited Semple at his farm outside Islamabad in summer 2008. Married to a Pakistani he met at Sussex University, he had been in the region for nearly 20 years, going to Afghanistan for the first time for Oxfam, just after the Soviet tanks rolled out. Clad in traditional clothes and with a long, straggly (albeit ginger) beard, he had adopted local custom and learned the languages. One British officer who met him in Helmand thought he was an Uzbek, or perhaps a lost Afghan child of a Soviet soldier. Sitting cross-legged under a whirring fan, Semple talked to me of the years he had spent building contacts, and how this had led him to set up meetings in Helmand and other hostile areas around the country in 2007. These attempts were endorsed by officials close to the president, but crucially not by Karzai himself. When he found out, Karzai became determined to expel Semple, although quite why has never been entirely clear. US sources told me it had to do with Karzai’s antipathy to scheming by British intelligence, while British sources suggested Karzai suspected a plot to install Lord Ashdown as UN representative in Kabul.


Semple got involved with “reconciliation,” as he called it, soon after 9/11—first with the UN and then the EU. As former Taliban leaders began to disarm, Semple was contacted by those who wanted guarantees for their safety. Later he worked with the Afghan government to persuade more Taliban commanders to change sides, although he found a mixture of corruption and sometimes malice meant that the guarantees of protection often had little substance. In public President Karzai spoke about the need for talks, but in private he saw such moves as potential threats to his position, and did nothing serious to advance them. So by the end of 2007, Semple had developed his own methods. Working with a team of Afghans he persuaded Taliban commanders to meet him incognito. While he sometimes travelled to Helmand in secret, he found it easier to stage talks in guesthouses in Kabul; it was a measure of the strength of the insurgency how easily they travelled to see him. The British approved of his work, but from a distance: when Semple was expelled Whitehall officials briefed, disingenuously, that Britain had had nothing to do with his activities.

Had the British and their allies seen the picture that Semple put together of the enemy earlier, and understood it, this might have stopped much of the fighting in the first place. The Taliban of southern Afghanistan, Semple said, was made up of bands of competing fighters. While all of them might accept some orders from the former Taliban government leader, Mullah Omar, what drove them to fight was often less to do with religion, and more with tribe and nation. Semple told me how the hasty US decision after 9/11 to make most former Taliban leaders into wanted men prevented many from retiring, or switching sides. Instead they were driven into Pakistan, where they regrouped and forged closer ties to the remnants of al Qaeda. US counterterrorist efforts made matters worse, as special forces swept across Afghanistan in the next few years, time and again haplessly being used to settle tribal scores.

This lack of engagement with the enemy also kept the newly-arrived British army oblivious of their role in an ongoing drugs war. By 2006, the growth in the opium trade, especially in Helmand, had led to what Semple described as “nothing short of an attempt to corner the world supply of heroin.” When the British army arrived it was at worst ignorant and at best naïve about the way its mission was seen locally as securing the interest of one drug lord against another. In Sangin, for instance, the Parachute Regiment arrived in the summer of 2006 ostensibly to protect the embattled district governor and officials loyal to President Karzai. But most of these officials came from one tribe, the Alokozai, whose local leader ran a private prison, whose men were alleged to have kidnapped and raped local children, and whose tribe was trying to wrest the drugs trade from its rivals. Semple put it this way: “In the run-up to the deployment a lot of the people in Helmand were actually very favourable. But then they found the same drug-dealing network holed up in Sangin next to the British platoon. They thought that somehow the British have got tricked into backing the drug mafia.” Already denounced to the Americans as terrorists, the rival tribal groups were driven into the hands of the Taliban.

Limited attempts to understand the Taliban were also made more difficult by British and US special forces campaigns to “decapitate” their leadership, beginning in the spring of 2007. Just as in Northern Ireland, conventional operations were mirrored by more secretive manhunts. Although the assassination of so many Taliban commanders made tactical military sense, it was a strategic mistake. Yes, the mullahs were plotting attacks on coalition troops. But if Semple’s analysis held good then the deaths of these men also risked destroying the tribal fabric of Helmand itself, and eliminating the very people who could ultimately reconcile. It was a risk that Andrew Mackay recognised too, telling his staff in 2008 that “we’re at risk of killing the Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness of the Taliban.” Nonetheless, by summer 2009 the decapitation showed no signs of stopping. “Link diagrams” depicting the network of alleged Taliban leaders in Helmand were marked with crosses over almost every name. The new US commander in Kabul, General Stanley McChrystal, came to Afghanistan with a background in running manhunt operations in Iraq. According to one senior US official, only extra demand for special forces over the border in Pakistan threatened to slow down the assassination programme.

Yet even as unmanned Predator drones circled their targets, Britain’s foreign secretary David Miliband began a new drive to talk to the enemy, using a major speech in July 2009 to pressure Karzai to help Taliban fighters find jobs or training if they stopped fighting. Officials said this was an attempt to revive and extend the programme that Semple had led in Helmand in 2007. After three years of battles, which the Taliban were always said to lose, British intelligence estimated that the number of active Taliban fighters had actually doubled in the province. This strength, combined with a new psychological advantage, meant that the kind of engagement which might have worked in 2006 was going to be much harder in 2009 and 2010. But belated as it is, it still needs to be tried.


In spring 2008 I visited the poppy fields in central Helmand with soldiers of the Yorkshire Regiment. We chatted to a farmer whose crop had been ploughed over by tractors employed by the Helmand governor. “Does he understand that Nato forces have taken no part in poppy eradication?” a British officer asked, somewhat hopefully. The farmer, an old man in flip-flops, replied that he did. “We were warned the poppies would be destroyed, but we gambled that like other years they wouldn’t come. I’ll now grow wheat and water melon,” he said. Yet a year on, men like the farmer are more likely to turn to producing improvised explosive devices. Even as the British and Nato strategy became more refined, and more geared towards winning over the Afghan population, in Helmand as in much of the country the situation was getting worse. Few people today would drive to those fields, just west of the province’s capital Lashkar Gah, in unarmoured Land Rovers as we did. The area is now a “Taliban stronghold.” Retaking it was a central objective of US troops and of the recent assault by British troops known as operation “Panther’s Claw,” the province’s fourth summer offensive in as many years. If 2007 and 2008 saw mostly “mowing the lawn” sweeps, the 2009 attack was a land grab, more akin to 2006. The aim was to extend Nato’s influence, but this time with much greater resources (provided by the Americans) and on a battlefield that stretched some 140 miles.

Panther’s Claw made July 2009 the bloodiest month of the war, and brought renewed media attention. Richard Dannatt, the departing head of army, spoke up for more equipment and men. But as the public rallied to support the beleaguered troops, few addressed the question that Michael Semple had been posing: why were these once peaceful fields now hostile? Some 18 months after Andrew Mackay first pushed the idea, the 2009 offensive was heavily promoted as being “population-focused.” General McChrystal promised new counter-insurgency tactics under the slogan “clear, hold, and build,” with a particular emphasis on the last element. He declared: “The measure of effectiveness will not be enemy killed; it will be the number of Afghans shielded from violence.” Brigadier Tim Radford, the British taskforce commander, said he was “absolutely certain” that Panther’s Claw had been a success. Lessons had been learned. A new swathe of land had been brought under government control—and it would be held.

But will it? The new slogans still leave unaddressed the tools and resources the military need to turn the population against the rebellion. Having seized such a large slice of Helmand, Nato still has nothing like the troop strength to garrison the province. British troops, meanwhile, remain overstretched in the zones they have held since before the summer. The Afghan army is not ready to step up, despite the appeals for reinforcement Gordon Brown has made to President Karzai. Nor is the Afghan government able to provide officials capable of delivering the security and services that might win over those infamous hearts and minds. Musa Qala showed that there is little point winning ground for an Afghan government regarded as corrupt and unable to deliver basic security. “The problem with our approach this summer,” one senior western official told me, “is that Afghanistan is neither willing nor capable of taking over the areas that Nato troops have captured… It’s a fiction that they’ll soon be ready.”

In Whitehall, meanwhile, government officials seethed at what they regarded as General Dannatt’s opportunism in using recent casualties to spread the blame for three years of bloody stalemate. As seen from London or Washington, the story of Helmand was more often of commanders who pushed soldiers into harm’s way, sent back endlessly optimistic reports, and extended the conflict beyond the resources and political will available back home. Their complaint has merit. Politicians dispatched troops to Afghanistan, but Nato generals decided how to deploy them. Most of the crucial decisions—from sending troops to defend the platoon houses, to “mowing the lawn,” to Panther’s Claw—have been made by soldiers. If an operation was launched with insufficient troops (or helicopters) it should not have been launched at all.

The real problem remains that the US approach of “clear, hold and build” is a tactic, not a strategy. It leaves unanswered just how much of this vast, lawless country should be cleared and held. There have already been calls for tens of thousands of more troops. Yet all of these dreamed-of reinforcements would never be enough to garrison all the areas of rebellion, never mind the whole country. Unlike in Iraq, we have reinforced before we know how to win.


So what should be done? As John Lawrence, the 19th-century viceroy to India, observed of policy in Afghanistan, as much may sometimes be achieved by “masterful inactivity” as by action. A lesson of Helmand that seems to have gone unlearned is that it is often better to do less than to risk interventions that stir up, rather than snuff out, conflict. In great swathes of the country Nato and the Afghan government may just have to accept an accommodation with hostile forces: not a truce or a climbdown but a recognition that western intervention has limited value. Not all enemies can be dealt with at once. If a notoriously bad man runs a village, valley or region but poses a limited threat to anyone outside, then leave him be, for now at least. Forget dreams of imposing “governance” on the entire nation. Where enemies do pose a direct threat to stability, do not reach for military action as the first response. Try instead for Afghan-led solutions involving tribal compromise; ones that may weaken an enemy rather than destroy or humiliate him. As Michael Semple told me, one of the most powerful weapons available—peacemaking—is rarely tried.

Where fighting must occur we should learn to pick our battles more carefully. And the decision of when military action is needed should be driven by the rationale of the mission itself. Since early 2008, the west has worked hard to correct its early confusion over objectives: emphasising, like President Obama, a narrower aim of creating a stable Afghanistan that can no longer be a base for al Qaeda and other extremists. But suggesting that the capture of a compound in Helmand somehow advances the defence of Birmingham remains a convoluted and unsatisfying argument. Devising the correct means to deny sanctuary to terrorists may involve counterintuitive thinking. The benefits of a stable Afghanistan are balanced by the cost of achieving it—among them the risk that fighting wars in Muslim lands helps to recruit new terrorists. If the battle really is against extremist Islam, we are not fighting against a terrorist army but against an idea. An operation like Panther’s Claw may kill or drive away the Taliban, but may be counterproductive to winning or losing the longer war. Doing fewer things better—and letting the world know about them—can have greater effect than pouring more troops into an extended offensive.

But, given that we’re already so committed, would such conservation imply a great drawdown of our forces? Not necessarily. Newly vocal Afghan sceptics, like former diplomat and author Rory Stewart, underestimate the human cost of a grand disengagement. Stewart suggests a reduction of foreign troops from 90,000 to “perhaps 20,000,” but this could lead to an explosion of violence and reprisal killing: if Nato forces were to withdraw suddenly, past experience shows that their local Afghan allies risk massacre. A sudden retreat would embolden those who confront the government, and by being perceived as a victory over the US, it could also help to further revive al Qaeda, a movement whose founding myth is of driving the Soviets from Afghanistan. Power needs to be put back in Afghan hands, harm undone and deals struck. But not from a position of sudden weakness.

Beyond our strategic interest in stability there also remains a moral case for the fight. Achieving a modicum of stability in Afghanistan would give meaning to all that loss of life. We cannot in good conscience abandon the place to anarchy. And Britain can still do good if it learns deeper lessons from its campaign. Its armed intervention should be concentrated on smaller areas, with a much greater emphasis on local intelligence. This must go hand-in-hand with economic development, and above all matching the scale of the mission with the resources available. Nato special forces need to look closely at the logic of their “decapitation” operations, and concentrate instead on helping indigenous forces. Miliband should be supported in promoting engagement with the enemy, and offering ways out for those involved in violence. All of these approaches require a further transformation of the way Britain and its military do business. The more focus there is on great military offensives, the faster the money and blood is expended; and the greater the pressure for rapid results, the less chance there is that the fight will ever be won.

Read Anthony King's response to this article, "Why we're getting it wrong in Afghanistan," here