As July draws to a close, the deaths of nine British soldiers killed in Helmand this month have brought the question of the Afghanistan campaign into the centre of public debate. The deaths have precipitated extensive coverage in the media. Politicians and, perhaps, the public finally seem to be recognising the level of commitment Helmand demands. That realisation is to be welcomed. However, almost exclusively, the discussions about the campaign have focused on equipment, more specifically, on transport.
Continuing a long-standing theme from Iraq, the focus has been on the inadequate protection of land vehicles, especially the Snatch Land Rover, and the related lack of helicopters. The lack of aviation has always been a concern in Helmand, and the increased improvised explosive devices (IED) threat has added force to the argument that British troops need to reduce their vulnerability on the ground. And, at the same time, commanders have called for more troops.
It is undoubtedly true that more British troops are required. It also seems unarguable that the lack of helicopters, especially for re-supplying troops in the various Forward Operating Bases (see this map), is a serious problem. However, rectifying these shortages will not remedy a campaign that some already see as failing.
The success of the American surge in Iraq under General Petraeus was not wholly, or even mainly, due to a mere increase in troop numbers. On the contrary, the Bush administration agreed to the release of more troops because Petraeus had a credible and cogent plan for Iraq. By contrast, the British strategy for Helmand is notably absent of new thinking and a clear plan.
Since 2006, British commanders have chosen to disperse their forces across the province into small, isolated platoon and company Forward Operating Bases. The result is that even in the Sangin Valley (around the town where most British soldiers have been recently killed) where there are several significant positions, the British bases cannot mutually support each other; they are too far apart. British commanders there note that troops in these locations sit in a bubble. British forces have lacked the troops in any one location to dominate the area. Consequently,…