Comments Off on Will we ever really leave Afghanistan?

Will we ever really leave Afghanistan?

Years from now, when our latest sally into Afghanistan is but a distant memory, archaeologists might visit this corner of the Helmand desert to contemplate the remarkable monument we left behind.


Camp Bastion, the vast fortress of concrete and steel where our military effort starts and ends, has acquired a permanence that defies the timetable for withdrawal by 2015.

The logistics experts calculate that it would take 17 years of continuous effort to dismantle this city, which began as a few tents by an airstrip and now has a perimeter of 38 kilometres. Politicians talk of departure but here, amid the featureless, broiling dust and rock, Bastion continues to grow.

In every direction new roads are being laid, concrete blast walls lined up, and the shipping containers in which just about everything that comes to Bastion is ferried over the passes from Pakistan are being stacked to form new compounds. It is the third busiest British airport after Heathrow and Gatwick. Life here is unsustainable without colossal human effort. The scale of the combined Nato operation is difficult to overstate.

Whatever else we learn from this venture, British forces will have mastered everything from training IED-detecting dogs to running medical trauma units that achieve life-saving response speeds from battlefield to hospital that surpass anything seen in Britain.

The environment, though, is unforgiving. Amid the dust, concrete and relentless noise, there is no greenery to see, save perhaps the neat patch of grass and rose bushes outside the office of the commanding officer of Camp Leatherneck, the American base that abuts Bastion.

The old rotary push mower leaning against the wall is an ironic touch. The thermometer on the commander’s porch, complete with armchairs and carpets, records 110ºF at 10am.

At night, under a full moon, Bastion looks like a sci-fi film: vast machines bristling with IED protection rumble around through the dusty murk as columns of soldiers are mustered in darkness towards the transporter planes and helicopters that continuously roar in and out.

By late afternoon it is 120ºF; nightfall brings scarce relief. For a newcomer, every impression of the reality of Helmand is shaped by the near-indescribable sapping awfulness of life in an oven from which there is no respite.

The idea that anyone will want to reproduce the effort it took to build Bastion to return it back to desert is laughable.
What happens to the base after British and American combat forces withdraw at the end of 2014 is just a small part of the wider debate that shapes all conversations in Afghanistan:

what happens next? Both British and American governments want to get out sooner rather than later, driven by the deadline set by president Hamid Karzai. In the immediate future, everyone is waiting for Barack Obama’s announcement, expected in July, on the size and pace of the first phase of the American reduction in troops. David Cameron, who may choose to align the British draw-down with the American one, will follow with his suggestion. He has already announced that 450 non-combat troops are returning this year.

But nothing is certain. There is a nagging awareness that the promises of politicians may not be achievable in the way the public expects. The extent and pace of the British withdrawal is the subject of a fierce argument over the prospects for a successful transition to Afghan control of security and government.

On a helicopter tour of the frontline, Dr Liam Fox, the Defence Secretary, cautioned that British forces would stay on in substantial numbers after 2014, not only to support the Afghan authorities but to protect British national security. He made it clear that the reason that prompted UK intervention here a decade ago — the exporting of terror by al-Qaeda using Afghanistan as a safe haven — would not be allowed to repeat itself.

The military in turn worry that the prospect of an orderly handover would be jeopardised by withdrawing too many troops too soon. Everywhere Dr Fox went he was presented with evidence of military success. The pace of attacks, in particular the relentless “kill or capture” raids by American and British special forces on Taliban fighters, has dramatically weakened the insurgency.

Despite the death of three soldiers at the end of the week – bringing the total killed since 2001 to 374 – the insurgency’s summer offensive has proved a damp squib so far, leaving veterans of previous tours wondering why things are less intense. Foreign fighters are now hard to find, there are signs that the Taliban are coercing young boys into taking up arms because of a lack of willing volunteers, and locals report that the Taliban now tax the families of children who disrupt their IEDs by inadvertently blowing themselves up.

A small measure of the success is the situation at patrol base Saalang, near Lashkar Gar. Here, in a mud fort that is nominally one of the most dangerous places in the area, Royal Engineers under the protection of 1st Bn The Rifles led by Lt Col James de la Billière have been able to build and hold a permanent bridge over the Nahr-e-Burga canal that is transforming local economic traffic.

Their compound of dusty huts and awnings surrounded by razor wire was built on a ploughed poppy field, underscoring the aim of replacing an economy based on narcotics with one centred on more mainstream activity.

In Lashkar Gar itself, the situation has surprised the Highlanders of 4 Scots led by Lt Col Alastair Aitken. One of the areas earmarked for transition to full Afghan control this summer, it has in effect been handed over already. The town, once a centre of violence, is now booming as the second most prosperous city in the country.

Afghans are flocking there to make money. “For Helmandis, money trumps everything else,” one commanding officer points out. The hope is that making money for themselves will prove more profitable than fighting for the Taliban.

But military success is focusing attention on the slower progress achieved on the civilian handover. The military surge delivered by the American administration needs to be backed by the “diplomatic surge” urged by President Obama. Yet there are persistent worries that it is not happening at anything like the pace needed to make the handover sustainable.

In Helmand the Provincial Reconstruction Team reports substantial progress in local democratic and judicial institutions, in part helped by the easing security situation. But there is widespread recognition that things are not going fast enough. The hope is that the deadline is focusing Afghan minds by confronting them with the painful reality of losing full-strength Western military and financial support.

Indeed, the development and aid effort is designed to wean the Afghans off dependence. International aid spending on reconstruction is running at 15 times what the Afghan central government spends, at a time when Western publics are understandably questioning why they must foot such a large bill. “They are having to learn to do things for themselves,” one senior diplomat said.

“It’s a change of mentality for them.” Western aid officials in Kabul detect the first signs of an Afghan national identity emerging among those used to defining themselves by tribal, regional or ethnic interest. But what is apparent from behind the oppressive security screens of the capital, where rare visits to the restaurant for British diplomats require booking a close protection team and an armoured SUV, may not look the same out in the provinces.

Here, transition is the only talk in town. In the West there is still public distaste at the idea of doing a deal with the Taliban, but President Karzai confirmed on Saturday that the US is engaged in secret talks with the insurgents, and diplomats expect that he will seek an informal power-sharing arrangement with those in the Taliban willing to call time on the insurgency – and to accept a continuing Western military presence in bases such as Bastion.

An added complication is that his term expires in 2014 with no obvious successor in sight. In the air-conditioned living rooms of Kabul they wonder if he will achieve an Afghan first: a president who left office alive, and then lived out his retirement in Afghanistan, not in Paris, Dubai or Monte Carlo.

For David Cameron, the danger will be if he leads the public to believe that talk of transition and withdrawal means the end of Britain’s involvement in Afghanistan. In fact, from here it looks as if it has scarcely begun, a point the military are all too aware of. They don’t want to cut and run. One source described it like this: “We won’t be like the Russians, who crossed the Oxus one day and never looked back. You won’t see the last British warrior rolling over the Khyber Pass on December 31 2014.”

Filed in: World News

Share This Post

Recent Posts

© 6600 Daily-Tips.Net. All rights reserved.