British military and diplomatic teams were in Gereshk this week, an area which had just been reclaimed from the Taliban after months of ferocious fighting. The talk was of reconstruction, setting up civic society, the aims of the multinational mission. In the middle of this came news that another British soldier has died and two others injured in a bombing, a grim reminder of the stark reality of Afghanistan.
The attack was in Kandahar, on a unit from the 1st Battalion the Royal Gurkha Rifles. They had been on their way to the airport following missions in the Gereshk Valley. An explosive device was buried into the tarmac of the road, nicknamed Baghdad Highway, because of the sheer number of explosions there.
As the remaining troops attempted to drive away after the blast, they faced sniper fire and rocket propelled grenades, but managed to burst through after a intense and prolonged exchange of fire, leaving burnt and shot-up vehicles in their wake. These latest casualties came on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the invasion by US and British forces, and at a time seen as being of crucial importance to the future of Afghanistan amid renewed war with the Taliban and the pressure mounting from a morass of infighting and corruption.
Afghanistan has now become one of the main points of focus of UK foreign policy. With the withdrawal from Iraq in full swing, there are now more than 7,000 British troops in the country, with many of those leaving Basra certain to end up in Helmand province.
The budget for reconstruction has been hugely increased, and Afghanistan is now among the top four recipients of British aid. In contrast to the desperate rush to get out of Iraq, the mission to Afghanistan, government ministers and the military declare, is in for the long haul.
Questions, however, are being asked about just how much has been achieved. The need to succeed in Afghanistan and avoid costly mistakes has led to fundamental changes in British policy. The Independent has learnt that following rising controversy over civilian deaths in Nato operations – mainly through air strikes – and repeated protests by President Hamid Karzai, the Nato rules of engagement have recently been altered, although the exact details cannot be published for security reasons.
Furthermore British forces now notify the local population beforehand that they will carry out operations. At the same time major offensives now take place in consultation with the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development in an attempt to ensure that development and reconstruction can follow.
One of the Foreign Office's rising stars, David Slinn, the former ambassador to North Korea, has been sent as the British government representative in Helmand along with a strengthened team, after criticism over lack of development in the province, to win the support of the local population.
The change of policy has been controversial, with complaints from soldiers that they are having to take part in some of the most intense fighting experienced by the British Army since the Second World War with too many restrictions. US and Afghan officials have also objected that some areas in Helmand, such as Musa Qala, have been allowed to remain in Taliban hands. British commanders and officials, however, are adamant that these places will only be cleared when aid projects can follow and local government can be reinstated.
"Mission Afghanistan", however, is a daunting task in a bleak landscape. Violence has surged by nearly 30 per cent this year with a marked increase in the number of suicide bombings; 43 people were killed in the capital, Kabul, in two bombings in three days. Opium production has rocketed and reached new heights, now producing 93 per cent of the world's supply, and Afghanistan is in the danger of becoming a "narcostate".
The country rates among the worst in the international league for corruption, much of it fuelled by drug money. President Karzai's brother has been publicly accused of being a opium trafficker. In the US a congressional committee on foreign affairs declared "there is no security in Afghanistan. The central government's grip does not extend much beyond the environs of Kabul. In the provinces, there is no functioning local government."
The British Government, nevertheless, holds that failure now to confront the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies in Afghanistan would mean once again letting the country become a haven for terrorism funded by the lucrative proceeds of heroin sales. It is also believed that fighting the Afghan conflict is more palatable to the British public than the deeply unpopular involvement in Iraq. Above all, Afghanistan, it is said in Whitehall, is "winnable".
The commanders are sceptical of such generalisations. Brigadier James Bashall, who is now leading 1 Mechanised Brigade in Basra, has served a number of times in Afghanistan. He said last month: "I have had visitors from London sitting here and saying that they want to invest troops in Afghanistan rather than Iraq because it is more winnable. I think that is entirely the wrong terminology. These conflicts are not about winning or losing, they are about gaining local consensus, winning them over to our side, without that it means nothing."
The two injured members from the Royal Gurkha Rifles were airlifted to Camp Bastion, a British base, and Brigadier John Lorimer, the commander of the Helmand Force, flew over to visit them. He said: "You can see the kind of dangers these men face every day. These guys have been taking part in some pretty intense fighting and they had been very successful in what they had been doing.
"This is very much one aspect of our lives here, some of the fiercest fighting since British forces have been in Afghanistan. But I have heard the word 'winnable', what is winnable? What is the end state? This is not just about military victory, it is about winning trust. Counter-insurgency is about hearts and minds. I ask my soldiers to think about what they are going to do. It may be legal, but is it appropriate? The policies we have adopted does make it difficult for us, but it is not just morally wrong to kill innocent civilians, it understandably alienates the community. This is also why reconstruction is so important."
Brigadier Lorimer also has Iraq connections. He was commander at Basra when two British soldiers were abducted by rogue elements of the Iraqi police and he ordered armour to smash through a police station to rescue them. His great grandfather, J G Lorimer, was a famous Arabist who had spent an extensive amount of time in Iraq working for the British government in the 1920s and became a passionate advocate for the Iraqi people. " He would turn in his grave over what has happened to that country," said Brigadier Lorimer.
The view from London: 'It's in Britain's interest to stay in Afghanistan'
Sir Michael Jackson, Former Army Chief
"It is in Britain's interest to stay. If Nato were to [leave] ...the Taliban would turn over Karzai's government, al Qai'da goes back to its safe havens and we're back to square one, or worse."
Denis MacShane, Labour MP
"Afghanistan is very important. Whether you like it or not, the notion that pulling out troops will lead the country to stability and peace is nonsense."
Julian Thompson, Retired Major-General
If we dropped troop levels, the Taliban would make a comeback. Why put in all that effort just to chuck it all away? One problem is that some of our Nato allies don't pull their weight.
Patrick Mercer, Conservative MP
I don't see what other solution [to sending more troops] there is. If we are going there to fight, we fight. There's no point sitting in the ring, hoping you don't take casualties.
David Cameron, Conservative leader
"My worry is that we could win the military campaign but lose the country. There are seven military chains of command and we don't have one person coordinating the aid."
Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat Leader
Victory in Afghanistan is being sacrificed on the altar of our continued, unnecessary presence in Iraq. We should concentrate on the UN-backed effort in Helmand
The view from Lashkar Gar, Afghanistan: 'We are facing great problems'
We thought our life will change after this government took over from the Taliban but now that I see the Taliban were better than the foreigners. At least we had better security. These days no one knows when he will become a target of a bomb or a suicide attack. Yes the foreigners should leave because they lied.
Abdul Manan, 32, driver, Kabul
American and British troops should stay in Afghanistan. We do need their presence but they have to be careful of what is happening. During the fighting they are sometimes targeting civilian compounds. This just creates more hate among the ordinary Afghans.
Najibullah Hafizi, 48, Government worker
Life is better now than under the Taliban but the people's expectations have not been fulfilled. I hope the British and Americans won't repeat their mistakes as they did after the Russians left. The cost of living is very high and for a person like me it is very difficult to survive.
Abdul Ghafar, 51, Labourer, Kabul
We are facing great problems these days. There are no job opportunities for most of us with foreigners giving business contracts to foreign companies. The British and US troops should stay, but their governments should create job opportunities for Afghans.Reuse content