'Afghan troops need better vetting and better conditions'

The new commander of British troops in Helmand talks exclusively to Kim Sengupta

Brigadier Richard Felton points to the maps on the wall of his office in Lashkar Gah, dotted with markers for impending military operations over the long, hot, Afghan fighting season. On other walls are the details of the ferocious campaign to date, of ground gained and lives lost – the stark statistics of war.

As the world's top diplomats head to Kabul for tomorrow's conference and the chorus of questions about the Nato mission continues to grow, the commander of the British troops in Helmand is planning the next move in the unrelenting conflict. The stated aim is to wrest territory from the Taliban and extend the shaky reach of the government of Hamid Karzai with the Afghan forces playing an increasing role. It is a tough and bloody process. The British forces have lost eight of their comrades in the space of four days, three of them at the hands of a trusted ally, an Afghan soldier they had lived and fought beside.

In his first interview since assuming command, Brigadier Felton says his most immediate concern is to combat the threat from the enemy within by tightening the vetting procedure for recruits to the Afghan forces. But he is swift to add that another factor is to improve the harsh conditions Afghan soldiers endure while serving on the frontline.

A strengthened co-operation between Nato and Afghan forces is at the heart of the West's exit strategy (last week's Operation Omid Do was the first Afghan-led military operation in the war) and should remain so, despite the shock to the system caused by last week's deaths of three British Gurkhas at PB (Patrol Base) 3 in Nahr-e-Saraj.

"[Partnering] is the tactical centre of my gravity," Brigadier Felton said. "Afghan people want Afghan security, they don't want Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) security. We can't hope to understand all the social dynamics of Afghanistan despite the extensive cultural training we get before deployment. We see things through a Western lens, not an Afghan lens. Once we can hand over security to them we can review the combat role of our troops and the future.

"What happened at PB 3 will make our partnership stronger," he continued. "My commanders have said this will make them pull together more." Many Afghan soldiers, local and national, have come to say sorry. "They are ashamed of what happened."

To make the partnership work better, however, there is a need to reform conditions in the Afghan army where soldiers can get deployed to the frontline for up to four years with hardly a break, "sometimes without pay, often without seeing their families". This has led to problems with desertion and has also bred resentments which have led to outbreaks of violence.

Brigadier Felton is adamant that the PB 3 deaths should not weaken the idea of "courageous restraint" - the doctrine adopted by Nato forces in an effort to eliminate the civilian casualties that had caused widespread anger among the Afghan population and prompted repeated complaints from President Hamid Karzai.

To that end, he is proposing medals for British soldiers who don't take actions that could lead to civilian casualties, as well as those who excel in combat. It is an idea that is bound to lead to criticism in some quarters, but the chief of the Helmand force is holding firm.

"We need to consider what we mean by gallantry. I am not saying that some sorts of the more traditional definitions of gallantry are not valuable, but we need a change of mindset," he says. "In a conventional war, the man going up the hill to plant a flag got a medal. In this case, the person who doesn't fire, ends up getting injured, but doesn't kill civilians or damage property, has to be considered as well.

"Each individual case has to be judged by circumstances, but I would certainly consider recommendations for citations for people who have shown courageous restraint on a case by case basis," he says.

In his view, the most of his troops understand how the war can be lost through the excessive use of force, despite the casualties they are suffering. "I know it is difficult. I don't go on patrol every day, I don't get shot at every day, I don't have to go past somewhere a mate had stood on an IED ( improvised explosive device). I can understand the frustrations they feel, especially when it comes to the IEDs. But I think, despite all that, they understand," he said,

While he acknowledges that losses have mounted, he stresses that some of the important gains have not been recognised in Britain. "Sacrifices have been made. We have taken quite a lot of casualties this tour. I feel for every one of them, I can understand how it affects the Task Force because we are such a close knit team" he said. "But Afghanistan is not just about casualties and body-bags. I don't think people back home fully understand the progress that is being made. We are extending security, building schools, connecting people to governance. If we sat in the bases doing nothing, we wouldn't have had those casualties. But we have to go out to get the success we have achieved. It is frustrating that this is not getting across."

Politicians in the West are clamouring for a deadline for withdrawal. In the UK, David Cameron has said British troops will be back home by 2015; his Foreign Secretary William Hague talks of 2014; Defence Secretary Liam Fox has stated that troops should leave a "broken 13th Century state" as soon as possible, but then subsequently declared they should stay as long as it takes.

Many commanders on the ground are deeply worried that this is sending the wrong signals to both allies and enemies. "We work to a timeline the politicians give. If that doesn't work, it's up to us to make that point" says Brigadier Felton. "I wouldn't say the timeline is unrealistic. If they said we should leave by the end of the year, then I would be worried. I personally wouldn't want to put that kind of timeline on what we are doing in central Helmand because we are making significant progress."

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