Transition was the watchword in Helmand in the summer and autumn of 2011. The West’s exit strategy was under way, the political appetite for investing more “blood and treasure” in the long war had waned. I witnessed the handing over of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, to Afghan control, and it seemed a landmark.
Ten days later, a suicide bomber killed 11 people in an attack near the police headquarters at Lashkar Gah. A few days earlier a bus had been blown up, leaving 19 passengers dead.
The province seemed calmer, but in the town of Char-e-Anjir the residents cautioned that the insurgents have not gone away. Mohammed Arif, a farmer, said: “It is a foolish man who thinks the Talibs have all fled. Go 30km north from here and you will see them with their guns.”
It was in this area a few weeks later that the Afghan prisoner was killed after a Royal Marines patrol found him injured in a field. It did not happen at a particularly violent time. The Marines spoke about how development projects had improved relations with the local people; the mood music, they said, was better.
At the court martial, the defendants spoke of the effect on them of casualties among their comrades. But this does not explain the killing of the prisoner. Video footage showed the contempt and anger the Marines felt towards the enemy. This is not unusual in war, but it did not end in prisoners being routinely executed in Afghanistan.
Of the dead Afghan we know nothing. Local people have put up a shrine; rocks, a stick with his jacket on it. But it is likely he was not from the area. “Just” another death in Afghanistan: but one which would have huge reverberations for the reputation of Britain’s armed forces.
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