The last exit: The Union flag is lowered, British troops depart, and Afghanistan’s next chapter begins

After the last of the troops leave, the population left behind will be hoping that the West, facing a new conflict in Syria and Iraq, keeps its promises to Afghanistan, writes Kim Sengupta

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The Independent Online

“Please don’t call it our Dien Bien Phu,” Lieutenant Colonel Simon Winkworth, of the Royal Engineers, requested as we gazed out onto a desolate expanse of scrub and sand on which he was going to build Camp Bastion.

There were reasons for optimism on that February day, eight years ago, that Britain’s Helmand force would not suffer the same fate as the French in Vietnam when a prolonged siege of that base effectively brought their occupation of Vietnam to an end.

The British would not underestimate the enemy as the French had done, we were assured. And John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, stated, when the mission was announced by Tony Blair’s government, that it would last no more than two years and end, he hoped, “without a shot being fired” in anger.

Today, the Union flag was lowered for the last time in Camp Bastion, bringing an end to Britain’s Afghan war after 13 years, three weeks and five days. Although the invasion following 9/11 was in 2001, for the UK the war really started in 2006. Until then, five members of the forces had been killed in total, three from suicide, accidental firearms discharge and a homicide respectively. The death toll today is 453; meanwhile around eight million rounds had been fired in combat; and the financial cost of the mission is over £40bn pounds.

 

The US has supplanted the UK as the main combat force in Helmand over the past few years, and the main handover ceremony to the Afghan army’s 215 corps was very much an American and Afghan affair. It was held at Camp Leatherneck, the US camp adjoining Bastion; the speech by Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, commander of Regional Command South West made only a passing reference to the UK’s contribution in the conflict, focusing instead on those of the Afghan forces and the US Marines.

The senior British officer present, Brigadier Rob Thompson, spoke of the allies helping “Afghanistan get itself back on its feet” and the creation of the “opportunity now for the Afghan leadership to get into the fast lane and move ahead”. He stressed that “we need to get the story into 2014 space and not 2006 space. Don’t see Helmand in a lens shaped by 2006. In Lashkar Gar today, you could easily go down the street. I have seen children playing chicken in the street. I have seen policemen at checkpoints.”

In reality all those things could be done and seen in Lashkar Gar, the Helmand capital, in 2006 – before the arrival of the UK task force. At the time, my colleagues and I stayed in a guest house in the city, shopped and drank chai in the bazaar: I accompanied the British commander running a small team, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley, as he went in “soft-skin” Land-Rovers to meet imams and elders in village shuras without body armour and helmets.

Then came the first suicide attack in Lashkar Gar. The American private security company, DynCorp, had started carrying out poppy eradication in Helmand, and their contractors took to visiting their former colleagues in the US military at the Lashkar Gar base. A car packed with explosives followed them and drove into the main gate.

One of the reasons for making Helmand the location of the UK force, the Government said, was to tackle the poppy harvest: 90 per cent of the heroin on the streets of Britain came from the province, which was responsible for 25 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium crop. Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the governor, was one of the main druglords; the British insisted on his removal, much to President Hamid Karzai’s chagrin. Helmand now produces 52 per cent of the Afghan crop.

The British military were extremely wary about getting involved in creating another tier of enemy among farmers whose livelihood depended on the crop. As I was leaving Lashkar Gar to fly up to Kabul that February, Lt Col Worsley asked: “Are you going to the British embassy in Kabul? If you are, can you ask them what exactly is the HMG policy on poppy eradication? No one has told us.”

By the summer of 2006, the British had more than poppies to worry about. Helmand was aflame, pitted with lots of mini Dien Bien Phus where small UK units were besieged in their bases by the Taliban.

General David Richards (now Lord Richards), then British commander of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan in Kabul, wrote in his diary for 3 July: “Every UK position except the main base came under fire last night, but because, mercifully, there were no casualties, it did not merit a mention in the press. The situation down there is serious and we need to bring it home to people.”Afghanistan-PA.jpg

There were subsequent recriminations. General Richards had wanted to implement an “inkspot” policy in which centres of population would be defended and governance slowly extended. Instead, Brigadier Ed Butler, head of 16 Air Assault Brigade, had sent his troops off to challenge the Taliban in remote areas; but he himself was under pressure to do so from Whitehall after President Karzai’s complaint that the insurgents had been gaining ground in Helmand after the removal of Governor Akhundzada.

There were never enough troops on the ground. In Kajaki, I accompanied British forces who fought hard to capture an enemy position and then had to withdraw because it was simply not possible to keep it occupied; within a day, rocket and mortar fire resumed from that position. In Kajaki, we also came across poignant reminders of previous foreign adventures in Afghanistan in a trench: a book by Pushkin and a letter home from a Russian soldier.

It took the arrival of the Americans with huge numbers to change this. I went with several thousand US Marines to recapture Naw Zad, along with air support and Leopard tanks from a Danish contingent. A similar-size force retook Garmsir, then Marjah, a long-standing Taliban stronghold.

But both British and American casualties continued to mount; the great game-changer was improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, lethal and cheap to produce, accounting for more than 90 per cent of the casualties. In 2010 at Babaji, company Sergeant Major Steve Taylor, of the Coldstream Guards, said when I arrived: “Out of 130 men, we have had four deaths and 35 casualties, four of them have been double amputees, two single amputees. I have had young lads pleading that they didn’t want to go out on patrol, but you say, ‘Son, you have to go through with this, this is what we do.’ They have gone out and done the job. I could have asked for no more.”

I soon got a taste of what they faced. During one patrol, Sergeant John Amer was injured by a booby trap as he rushed to help an injured soldier. As we returned with the stretcher party, another IED, placed on a route cleared just a few hours previously, exploded, causing more severe injuries.

But, progress was being made, places which had been battlegrounds begun to get forms of governance, schools reopened and businesses began to take root in traditional commercial centres like Gereshk. Afghans would complain of bribes demanded by officials, deaths caused in air strikes by international forces, but very few wanted the Taliban to come back. “It’s not just what the Taliban did, it’s what they can’t do,” Gulab Mangal, a very able governor of Helmand pointed out. “They can’t build roads, factories, provide jobs.”

But there was rising weariness about the war in America and Britain, not the anger which surfaced over the lies told to justify the Iraq invasion, but questioning of just when it will end. Accounts of rapacious corruption in the Karzai administration added to the disenchantment.

The early announcement of the date for the end of mission by Barack Obama was meant  to put the Afghan government on notice to get its act together.

But it also meant that the West had shown its hand to the Taliban and their backers in the Pakistani military and secret police. The rush to raise the strength of the Afghan security forces to 352,000 resulted in training courses being curtailed and, on occasions, these forces being thrown into battle before they were fully prepared; the losses among the country’s army and police have been horrendously high in the past year. The uncertainty about the future after the international forces leave has also led to businesses moving funds abroad and foreign aid workers leaving.

According to the new mantra in Washington and London, Najibullah, the Afghan President left behind by the Russians, was not just a Kremlin stooge, as the West had previously declared, but an astute leader who had kept the insurgency at bay for some time until the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the money tap was turned off. That is something, we are assured, which will not happen with the new Afghan government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah who will continue to get the required funding.

After the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, Tony Blair declared: “This time we will not walk away” – as the international community had done after the Russians withdrew in 1989. But that is precisely what happened when troops and resources were moved to Iraq two years later, allowing the Taliban to return.

As tumbleweed blows through Bastion, and the last of the kit is packed away, we will have to wait and see whether the West, facing a new conflict in Iraq and Syria, keeps its promises to Afghanistan.

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