Camp Bastion: Welcome to Helmand

It holds the key to future global security, says Tony Blair, and Britain's troops in Afghanistan remain at the heart of the struggle. Raymond Whitaker reports from the surreal £1bn Camp Bastion.
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The Independent Online

Imagine a rectangle, four miles long by two miles wide, drawn almost at random in the flat emptiness of the southern Afghanistan desert. Fill it with cargo containers, white polythene tents and a bulldozed airstrip, and you have an idea of Camp Bastion, the main British military base in lawless Helmand province.

Tony Blair was here the other day, telling the troops that this "extraordinary piece of desert... in the middle of Afghanistan, in the middle of nowhere" was where "the future of world security in the early 21st century is going to be played out".

What he did not say was that the Taliban's resurgence, five years after it was driven from power for giving Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida a haven from which to launch the 9/11 attacks, owes a great deal to Western inattention. Not only did the Iraq war deprive Afghanistan of the help it needs, the British military is stretched to the limit in carrying out both missions.

The Prime Minister may well be right to argue that a comeback by the Taliban would be disastrous for world security, but, impressive though Camp Bastion may be, it is not in this "extraordinary piece of desert" that Britain will succeed or fail. Apart from a few labourers and cleaners, the only Afghans ever seen here are nomadic camel herders, as the base is deliberately sited away from the main centres of population.

Camp Bastion did not exist at the beginning of 2006. It came into being after John Reid, then Defence Secretary, announced in January that British forces would extend their mission in Afghanistan from the relative stability of the north to the Taliban stronghold of Helmand further south. A few months and roughly £1bn later, over 2,000 British troops - more than half the force in the province - live in this strange lunarscape.

In places the talcum-like dust is so deep that it can come over the top of your boots; in the distance, spiky mountains rear up from the plain without so much as a preliminary foothill. Not that you can always see the mountains - in summer, the air is distorted by temperatures of up to 50C, and even in late autumn, dust devils suddenly blow up in the heat of the day.

Everything in Bastion is imported, from the shower blocks to the food. In the air-conditioned "galley", as the Royal Marines insist on calling the mess hall, despite the nearest ocean being 600 miles away, (omega) there is defrosted Black Forest cake for pudding every night. Thanks to modern military logistics and prefabrication techniques, it is possible to drop a capsule of Western living conditions almost anywhere on the planet, with Rolla-Trac plastic flooring for the tents and ramparts made of Hesco. Described on the company website as "the most significant development in field fortifications since WWII", Hesco consists of giant plastic bags surrounded by steel mesh and filled with local dirt. If a base is ever constructed on the Moon, it will probably be made the same way.

Without such technological advantages, this area, like most of the rest of southern Helmand, would be uninhabitable. So how is it that the province was once famed for the succulence of its melons and grapes, and now has more opium poppies under cultivation than anywhere else in Afghanistan? Half the heroin on British streets originates in Helmand, and the money from the drugs trade is helping to fuel the Taliban revival that has brought British forces here.

A look at a map explains the apparent paradox, and shows that the location of Camp Bastion is anything but haphazard. A short distance to the north, the province is bisected by Highway One, a trunk road built by American engineers in the days when this country was a way-station on the hippie trail, and the West was competing with the Soviet Union for influence. Away to the east is the Helmand River; like the Nile in Egypt, it is a densely populated ribbon of green in the midst of arid desolation. Only in the mountainous northern tip of Helmand, where there are a few snow-fed tributaries, is it possible to exist more than a short distance from the great river.

This is where the people and the poppies are, and where the battle for hearts and minds must be won. Despite the might of Camp Bastion, with its Viking armoured vehicles and Apache attack helicopters, British troops are not supposed to be here to fight a war with the Taliban or drug barons. Their main purpose is to win support for the elected Kabul government by creating enough stability for development to take place, yet the British presence is far more discreet in the places where development needs to happen.

At Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, known as "Lash", and Gereshk, the commercial centre, strategically located at the intersection of Highway One and the Helmand River, smaller detachments of troops are housed in compounds no larger than the grounds of the average comprehensive school at home. Some, such as the cooks and vehicle mechanics, will arrive and leave by helicopter, and never pass through the gate in their entire six-month tour. While the Lashkar Gah base is at least within the outskirts, the Gereshk compound is out on the plain, a short distance from the town. As the local commander, Major Ewen Murchison, points out, this means "it is very hard to achieve surprise, because everyone knows when you are coming out".

Inside their enclaves, the troops watch satellite television, drink bottled water and buy Pamela Anderson posters in the Naafi store. Immediately outside, many people do not have enough to eat. "When we do gunnery practice in the desert," an Apache pilot told me at Camp Bastion, "the Afghans come out to grab the brass shell casings and melt them down. A week or two later they turn up as statuettes in the market."

For those who go out on patrol, the experience is like emerging on to the surface of an alien planet. To the desperately poor local population too, these fit, well-nourished young men in their body armour and helmets must seem like an invasion from space. The troops have coined a slang term, "jingly", for anything Afghan - a reference to the clinking chains that fringe every truck here. It is far harder to determine what local people make of the British forces.

The Marines have learned some Pashto phrases, and are being allowed to grow beards to fit in better with local ways, but they are told to maintain a certain distance. Many Afghans, for their part, appear to tolerate the British presence rather than welcome it. One officer said people in his area "keep to themselves in their family compounds. It's not easy to engage with them."

In this relative isolation, theories develop about local perceptions that do not always seem to have much evidence to support them. As soon as they arrived, for example, British commanders sought to distance themselves from poppy eradication, knowing that to wipe out the living of local farmers was a sure way to turn the populace against them. Destroying the poppies will be an Afghan operation, they insist, for which the British troops will provide security. It is difficult to imagine, however, that such a distinction will mean anything to angry villagers.

Another source of resentment is the notoriously corrupt police force. "If people have to pay bribes at a checkpoint when we are not around, and then see the police behaving correctly when we are there, that will boost confidence," a Marine told me. But it appears equally possible that the victims will simply see the British as being in league with their oppressors.

Two excursions in a day from the base at Lashkar Gah showed the chasm in cultures. In the first, our group of six journalists "disembedded" from the military to go into the centre of the provincial capital in a civilian vehicle. We were heading for the "DC" district, so called because it was built by the Americans in the 1970s, supposedly to look like Washington. Like the Green Zone in Baghdad, it houses the local administration.

DC is the base of Mohammed Daud, the provincial governor appointed earlier this year - under some international pressure - to replace a man implicated in the drugs trade. The former UN worker has the unenviable task of trying to impose Kabul's rule on a part of the country where tribal loyalties, and tribal enmities, have traditionally reigned supreme.

We were going to a meeting at which Governor Daud was seeking to persuade mullahs and tribal leaders to oppose the planting of opium poppies - not an easy proposition, as there are few other sources of wealth, and mullahs are often paid tithes by the growers. On the way, we passed a blackened hole by the side of the road. This was where Gary Wright, the first Marine lost in the current deployment, had been killed just a few days before by a suicide bomber as he sat in an armoured "snatch" Land Rover, the same vehicle that has proved so vulnerable to roadside bombs in Iraq. (omega) The Marines have stayed out of the centres of both Lashkar Gah and Gereshk since the bombing, which also killed two Afghan children. Apart from the threat to British forces, civilian casualties are no way to gain acceptance of their presence.

Although it later turned out that British officials had paid for the gathering, we were the only foreigners among a couple of hundred bearded men in turbans, their faces lined and darkened by decades in the sun, who were waiting for the governor to address them. Governor Daud, an English-speaking engineer with a neat beard, based his appeal on the damage opium was doing to the local population, and on national pride. "We have 1,000 addicts in Lashkar Gah alone," he told them. "In 10 years they will be heads of families, and they will be robbers to feed their habit. What will their children be learning? When our president goes abroad, all they talk to him about is poppy cultivation, and when Afghans go to Mecca, they are searched from head to foot as soon as they show their passports."

But his low-key address did not produce more than a murmur from the meeting, and when he stepped down from the podium, there was a neutral silence. British commanders and civilian officials meet constantly with Governor Daud, in whom they vest a high proportion of their hopes for success, but in such company it was clear that he could not afford to be seen as too close to the armed Westerners who have suddenly appeared in this remote and fiercely insular society.

Later that day I went on a patrol with the Marines, the start of which was delayed because the interpreter supposed to accompany us refused to come out, saying he had already worked enough hours, and another had to be found. Our convoy of Land Rovers stopped first at an Afghan police checkpoint on the edge of town, where a small, thin man in a dusty Communist-era uniform introduced himself as the new commander.

"It's good to see your men stopping and searching cars," the patrol leader, Captain Tom Evans-Jones, told him. "Sometimes we come here and the police are doing nothing." Since checkpoints like these are supposed to prevent suicide bombers getting into the town, the exchange did not inspire confidence.

The police officer said the Taliban had attacked the post a couple of nights before. "How many were there?" Capt Evans-Jones wanted to know. "Which way did they come? Were any of your men hurt?" But the commander's answers were vague: about 15 or 20 came from somewhere over there, he said, with a gesture covering half the horizon. Local people had helped beat them off after 90 minutes, but nobody had been injured and he could not show us any bullet damage. It lent point to the words of another British officer, who said that if he responded to every Afghan report of hundreds of Taliban massing for an attack, his men would be on combat alert all day, every day.

Part of the mission here is to train Afghan security forces, but British commanders make little effort to deny that they have a long way to go. One called the police a "disaster"; apart from their corruption, they are indisciplined and utterly unacquainted with any form of law enforcement that does not involve threatening somebody with a gun. But Colonel Ian Huntley, the deputy commander of 3 Commando Brigade and head of the provincial reconstruction team, says things have to be done at the Afghan pace. "I call it ABCD," he said. "The Afghans must be leading, and we are in support. It's very frustrating, but we must not rush them. B is for building capacity - they must not rely on us too much. C is for creating security, and D for development, our unique selling proposition. The Taliban can only offer destruction and intimidation."

The practical difficulties in implementing this were demonstrated as the patrol pushed on to Mukhtar, a mud-walled refugee village on an escarpment above Helmand River. "I keep expecting John Cleese and the Judean People's Liberation Front to pop up at any moment," joked one Marine. Patrols are told to gather useful information: when one man said he had been given the land for his house by a "government person" called Izatullah, Capt Evans-Jones scribbled the name down. But the need to stay moving, to avoid presenting the Taliban with a target, kept the contacts brief.

The Marines are constantly on the lookout for "dicking", a term from Northern Ireland meaning civilians keeping track of their movements and passing them to potential attackers. "In the desert we are followed round by guys on motorbikes," said one officer. "They use very simple methods to signal our whereabouts, like flashing mirrors, lighting fires or firing rifles in the air." This close to Lashkar Gah, it is also possible to use mobile phones.

The delay in starting the patrol meant the sun had almost set, and the atmosphere changed markedly after dark. We had descended to the bank of Helmand River, and were having difficulty in finding a way up the side of the escarpment. The Land Rovers lurched wildly through beds of gravel until a track was found to take us through the middle of another village, with the Marines constantly shouting "Drezh!" (Halt!) through clouds of dust to startled truck-drivers and motorcyclists, many of whom did not have working headlights.

The same evening, a foot patrol fired warning shots to stop a driver careering towards them. Near Gereshk, a similar incident in November led to the deaths of two Afghan civilians and the wounding of a child. A British soldier fired into the road to warn off an approaching minibus, but the bullet ricocheted from the surface and through the packed vehicle. Every such tragedy is another setback to the aim of draining away support for the Taliban.

In many respects 3 Commando Brigade is having to start over, after their predecessors, 16 Air Assault Brigade, became entangled in heavy fighting during the summer. The British deployment was never intended to venture north of Highway One, but Governor Daud wanted support in asserting Kabul's authority in small towns such as Sangin, Musa Qala and Now Zad, whose names became familiar all over Britain as small detachments of troops found themselves facing wave after wave of Taliban attacks.

Until the beginning of this year, only two British soldiers had died in combat in Afghanistan, but 16 were killed in Helmand in the space of a few weeks. Reports of troops running low on food, water and (omega) ammunition as they fought for their lives made many at home question what they were doing there. An angry email from one officer, who said the RAF had been "utterly, utterly useless" when he needed close air support, still rankled weeks later, when we visited the Harrier squadron in Kandahar.

"That comment wasn't typical," said Group Captain Sean Bell, the senior RAF officer in Afghanistan. "We have had streams of people coming here to thank our people for their help." In March, the announcement that the Harriers would not be going home as scheduled was one of the first indications that the British deployment to Helmand would be tougher than anticipated, and during the summer the pilots found themselves in what one called "the most fluid tactical situation I've ever encountered in 20 years of flying".

"It could kick off in a heartbeat," he went on. "You would pitch up, and within 10 seconds the guy on the ground would be screaming for you to drop ordnance. You could hear bullets and rocket-propelled grenades over the radio, but we still had to be sure of our target." On several occasions the squadron had what is known as a "Winchester", when a pair of Harriers would come back with empty bomb and rocket racks.

The greater the firepower at their disposal, the more heavily pilots of both Harriers and Apache helicopters seem to feel the responsibility of using it. The rules of engagement and the mission aims are constantly reviewed. "Every day that we hurt someone," said a Harrier pilot, "it takes a day longer to convince local people that we are here to help them, and that there are other things we'd rather be doing."

The fighting of the summer has died down to an extent, and commanders believe that the Taliban has suffered heavily. But it also demonstrated that there are not enough British forces here to battle the insurgency at the same time as providing the conditions in which aid work can be carried out. Some projects have been launched in the triangle formed by Lashkar Gah, Gereshk and Camp Bastion, an area that is somewhat grandly titled the "Afghan development zone", but so far the achievements are limited.

For all the commendable insistence on maintaining a low profile and making sure that development has an "Afghan face", one suspects that this is also a necessity created by limited resources. Nato has repeatedly sought reinforcements to create a mobile strike force that could deal with sudden upsurges in Taliban violence, but meeting after meeting has so far failed to provide the necessary troops.

It is all a long way from Mr Reid's blithe comment in January that he would be happy if the three-year mission could be completed "without firing a shot". That statement has already proved wildly wrong, and commanders are increasingly open about the fact that it will require far longer than three years to achieve their aims: some talk of it taking a generation.

The response to all this from the forces on the ground is often sourly humorous. Two helicopter pilots had South Park-style badges on the back of their helmets, which said, respectively: "You sent me to Afghanistan, you bastard" and "Six months in Afghanistan, my ass". One Marines officer wore a T-shirt that read: "You fell foul of one of those classic blunders - never get involved in a land war in Asia."

Yet everyone, from President Hamid Karzai to the British commander of Nato in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Richards, emphasises that a purely military solution to the insurgency is not possible. Though some British forces remain scattered in "platoon houses" in northern Helmand, diverting strength from the main mission, the hope is that Helmand will see enough of a lull in fighting to enable "quick fix" aid projects to be carried out, such as restoring wells and schools. If and when the Taliban come back in the spring, perhaps they will be weaker and will get less of a welcome from local inhabitants.

That is a lot of hopes, but commanders are aware that the insurgency is not monolithic. For every hard-core jihadist, there are many more local people who have taken up arms because they are angry at corruption and lack of opportunities, or simply because they resent foreigners in their land. In this tribal society, strength is respected, British officers believe; people are waiting to see who comes out strongest.

But if the Taliban can bring the British to battle, it is a defeat, because it encourages local people to see both sides as the same. Every time British forces have to demonstrate their firepower, they risk losing support, because innocents will suffer, despite the stringent rules of engagement. "There is an inherent disadvantage because the insurgents can hide, while we have to be overt," said one officer.

Nor is there any guarantee the troops will be granted much respite. As the fighting eased in northern Helmand, there was an increase in clashes recently around Gereshk, on the edge of the development zone. "Swarm" attacks having caused heavy losses, the insurgents appear increasingly to be resorting to roadside bombs and suicide attacks, on the pattern of Iraq.

As we walked through Mukhtar, Capt Evans-Jones told me he had seen the results of an earlier suicide bombing in the centre of Lashkar Gah, which killed more than a dozen local people. "It was horrible," he said. "There were ball-bearings rolling about" - bombers pack them over the explosive to increase the killing power of the detonation - "and pools of blood everywhere. I don't mind fighting the Taliban, but I feel differently about suicide bombing." He is 26.

Southern Afghanistan is not yet southern Iraq. In Basra the aim of reconstruction has long come a distant second to keeping British troops alive, which means remaining in their bases most of the time. That caused the head of the army, Sir Richard Dannatt, to say they were actually exacerbating the security situation, and should be withdrawn soon.

Our reasons for going into Afghanistan have not been discredited in the same way, but the Iraq adventure has tainted the Afghan mission and made it infinitely more difficult. Unless Britain keeps paying attention, it could be touch and go whether young men like Capt Evans-Jones succeed in what they are trying to do.