All quiet in Helmand: but can we leave Afghanistan in peace? British soldiers speak ahead of next year's withdrawal

After years of bloodshed, relative calm has descended on Helmand. The soldiers preparing to go home tell Kim Sengupta their thoughts on the country’s future

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The Independent Online

“The firing just would not stop. The bullets were so close I could see them flying past me, I knew if I moved one inch I’d have been hit. So I stayed still; I was in charge and I told the others to stay still as well, I told them that was the only way to stay alive,” recalled Cpl Sri Krishna Gurung.

He and his fellow soldiers were in a ‘sangar’ watchtower at a base in the town of NawZad. The night-vision equipment had been already been shot to pieces, making it impossible to hit back at the Taliban fighters hidden in the dark. The relentless attack went on for six hours. “I think they only stopped when they ran out of ammo,” said the corporal.

This was the summer of 2006, just after British forces had been deployed to Helmand by Tony Blair’s government in a two-year mission the then Defence Secretary John Reid hoped “would end without a shot being fired”. The aim was to tackle a growing insurgency and stop the flow of heroin from a province producing 24 per cent of Afghanistan’s total output.

Only now, seven years on, are the British preparing to leave Helmand and pull out of Afghanistan entirely next year. They leave a country that the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond admits is “not perfect”, with the UK “very limited” in its ability to leave any kind of lasting influence on life there. How did the mission veer so far off course?

General Sir David Richards, now the head of the British military, was at the time the head of Isaf (International Security Assistance Force) in Afghanistan. He had wanted the UK force in Helmand to focus on the ‘inkspot’ strategy of protecting major towns, allowing civic society to take root and development to take place. Instead the 16 Air Assault Brigade – following the wishes, it was claimed, of President Hamid Karzai – set off for remote areas, effectively inviting the enemy for a fight; the Taliban were happy to oblige.

Within weeks Helmand was aflame. According to the plans, 1st Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles (1RGR) were meant to be guarding Camp Bastion, the newly constructed UK base. Instead they found themselves in NawZad under constant assault.

“The Taliban tried to overwhelm us. They would come so close to the base that we would throw grenades at them from the sangar when they were just 10 metres away, we could clearly see their faces,” said Cpl Gurung, who then was 23 years old. “We were stuck, pinned back. There was very little knowledge about the capabilities of the Taliban. They were well armed, they would fire RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] from multiple points, they had snipers. This went on day after day.”

In the next two years, Helmand became one of the most violent places in the country – and heroin production shot up to 53 per cent of the national crop. The British troops fought tenaciously but were too few to counter the ever-increasing numbers of insurgents coming in from their sanctuaries in Pakistan. Territories taken, often at the cost of lives, could not be held because of a lack of boots on the ground.

This led to a major rethink of strategy. US forces arrived in large numbers and the British started on what Gen Richards had urged them to do in the first place: concentrating on protecting cities. There was also a focus on counter-insurgency doctrine, less talk of the ‘Northern Ireland Experience’ – an oft-repeated phrase which would make the Americans sigh – and more analysis of the war that was actually being fought.

Engagement with the community was seen as the key and the troops began to see the fruits of that.

Sgt Gobinder Gurung, who served alongside Sri Krishna in Helmand, became so trusted by the locals that they would ask him to adjudicate disputes; his nickname was ‘the mullah’. The sergeant, who is now on his fourth tour of Afghanistan, initiated a scheme which drastically reduced the number of attacks. “We knew about the ‘$10 Taliban’, young men who would plant IEDs [improvised explosive devices] for money. We offered them 250 Afghanis [around $5] a day to work in the farmland on a long-term basis. It was in their interest now to make sure that the money they were getting wouldn’t get interrupted by fighting. We were getting 16 attacks a day – this went down to one or two. After we left, the Paras took over and continued the same programme, and the attacks continued to remain very low.”

While overt insurgent attacks were reduced across Helmand, another more treacherous threat began to rise: ‘green on blue’ shootings of Western forces by their erstwhile Afghan comrades.

This was partly due to the scramble to get the numbers of the Afghan army and police up to a complement of 352,000, taking over security responsibilities and allowing Isaf to withdraw from the long and costly war. Officers from the NDS (National Directorate of Security), the country’s intelligence service, point out just how difficult it has been to vet the background of those applying to join at such a fast recruitment pace.

Nevertheless, the timetable for the West’s end-of-combat operations remain on track, with Afghan forces now carrying out the vast majority of operations, only occasionally asking for help from Isaf. The current mantra in Washington and London is that the government of Mohammed Najibullah survived for five years after his Russian backers left, only falling when a cash-strapped Moscow turned off the economic tap. The Afghan government, which will be in place after 2014, on the other hand, will continue to receive international funding and should not suffer the same fate.

The officer commanding 1RGR’s D Company was severely injured by an IED five years ago in Kandahar. After a recovery process which involved extensive surgery, he volunteered for two further tours. The major, who does not want his name publicised, said he was at first “extremely surprised” by the pace of the British drawdown; but he has been “highly impressed”, he said, by the progress made by the Afghan army.

The future, he believes, would be ‘an Afghan reality’ away from the Westernised concept of nation-building. “I think there will be stability; it will be a stability based on what’s established by the power-brokers of Afghan society, tribal elders, land owners, reintegrated insurgents and, yes, in some places, narco-barons. It will be an Afghan solution, which will probably work.”

Brigadier Bob Bruce, the commander of British troops in Helmand, stressed: “We know there’s no military solution to a campaign like this, and the role of the military is to displace the violence away from where people live so that the people have got the freedom, the space, the time to consider the offer that the government makes to it. They can weigh that offer up against what the insurgency is offering and decide. And when the people decide, of course, then that’s it, the insurgency has nowhere to go.”

The commander insisted that Afghan forces are fully capable of taking over the campaign. “We’ve still got a real job to do. We are definitely keeping an eye on the end of 2014. Where we have sensed that we can reduce our profile, we’ve done so. If at any stage the Afghan forces had wobbled, then we, all through this winter, would have been right with them to help them. Actually what we’ve found is that they’ve become really very good at it, and therefore we’ve been able to reduce our profile to such an extent that we’re not doing the sort of operations that we were doing 12 months ago. The critical ingredient at the moment in terms of this progress that I’ve seen is Afghan confidence and I know that they’re good enough to neutralise or even locally defeat the insurgency, I absolutely know it.”

Corporal Gurung, who took part in the first Helmand deployment and a subsequent one of equal violence, is now back as bases are being dismantled. “Now it is very quiet. Some of the younger soldiers are frustrated, but for me, I am very glad it’s coming to an end.”