Afghanistan has come a long way since the dark days of the Taliban; two weeks ago I travelled freely on public transport around Kabul and the north of the country. But such freedoms may not last long.
The escalating violence in the south threatens stability in the rest of the country, while the current bickering between Nato partners about troop levels and commitment ignores the crucial issue: that a shift in strategy, not just greater troop numbers, is urgently required.
No wonder, then, that President Karzai publicly expressed exasperation at the failings of his backers last week in Davos. American and British forces, he said, "guaranteed to me they knew what they were doing and I made the mistake of listening to them... when they came in, the Taliban came".
Sadly, this is pretty much true. Since 2006, the British mission in Helmand province has been a violent and spectacular failure. British troops are engaged in an escalating war with a resurgent enemy. Opium production has soared to new heights and scores if not hundreds of civilians have been killed by Nato air power. We have, so far, failed in Helmand. The questions now are what we have got wrong and where do we go from here.
On entry to Helmand, the British mission was billed as one of reconstructive "nation building" to improve the lives of ordinary people by providing security, development and good governance. Three simultaneous and mutually dependent lines of operation were to exist, provided by the Army, the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office. This strategy, called the comprehensive approach, is a central tenet of British counter insurgency doctrine. Success is entirely dependent on winning the hearts and minds of the population. However, the comprehensive approach has failed because it was never comprehensive. The Army, being the first into Helmand in spring 2006, launched, unsupported by DfID and the Foreign Office, into towns across the north of Helmand establishing patrol bases or "platoon houses". I know this, because I was there, in Sangin, a prosperous opium trading town on the Helmand River. We patrolled the streets and shook hands with the locals. But when they asked us about the future of the poppy or what "development" meant, we had no answers.
As a commander I had helicopter gunships, fighter jets and artillery at the end of the radio but lacked even a few hundred dollars to employ locals in a "quick impact project". Long-term development, of course, should be done by the professionals, but they were not there either. We were out on a limb, seen as hostile foreign occupiers threatening the common livelihood and were soon engaged in open warfare, which has raged ever since.
So what should be done now in Helmand? Three things urgently need to happen. First, civilian deaths as a result of military operations must cease. In 2007, at least 6,000 people died in the conflict across Afghanistan, of which approximately 1,400 were civilians. Five hundred to 600 of these were directly attributable to Nato forces, mostly in air strikes. Scores of civilians have been killed by British ordnance in Helmand: for example, 21 in a single airstrike in Sangin last April.
The use of air power and artillery is employed by troops on the ground as a defensive measure and civilian deaths are accidental. But for counter insurgency operations dependent on winning hearts and minds, such deaths are a catastrophe of the highest order, avoidable if British troops kept a lower profile and reduced confrontational patrolling in populated areas.
Second, development must replace war-fighting as the primary object of the campaign. Military officials in Helmand continue to spout the mantra that "operations are creating the conditions for development". This is contradictory nonsense. The fighting in Helmand has not only killed many civilians but also created large numbers of displaced persons – the UN estimates 80,000 to 115,000 from the south – destroyed what little legal economy there was, forced most schools to close and allowed the production of opium to soar.
British troops number more than 7,000 in an area equal in size to Wales. Though professional and courageous, in charging up and down the Helmand valley fighting gun battles from patrol bases, they are achieving little. If they take ground, they have not the numbers to hold it and cannot rely on poorly trained Afghan National Army soldiers to do it for them.
The best use of our military power would be to create a small ultra-secure zone around the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in which the physical reconstruction of schools, clinics and agriculture might stand as a beacon for local people to see what often-promised development actually looks like. Slowly this area might expand, on a timeframe not of months or years but decades. Development, and the alleviation of poverty, is the basis of security. As Oxfam's recent report Afghanistan: Development and Humanitarian Priorities states:
"Peace in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without improving the lives of ordinary Afghans ... the current environment of persistent poverty provides the conditions in which the insurgency can flourish. It is inevitable that some Afghans turn to narcotics, criminality, or even militancy, if they cannot feed their families. Military action addresses symptoms, not the underlying causes or conditions. Bringing real improvements to Afghan lives, and better prospects, is not only the right thing to do, it is an essential, long-term means of reducing vulnerability to the spread of militancy."
The third matter of urgency in Helmand is the adoption of a realistic approach to poppy cultivation. Afghanistan produces 93 per cent of the world's opium and Helmand province alone has a 42 per cent share of that production.
Poppy growing is the economy. It provides the livelihood of the vast majority of the rural population who are poor cash-croppers exploited by narcotics traffickers and deprived of the opportunity to participate in legal agriculture. Currently the British counter-narcotics policy is a confusing mixture of half-hearted alternatives and eradication, driven by the Americans. Dyncorp, a contractor paid by the US government, has carried out sporadic eradication throughout the province without co-ordination with British or Afghan forces.
The governors of Helmand have also sponsored their own eradication teams, acting in a partisan manner. Farmers too poor to bribe are the ones that lose their crop. This eradication, especially when no realistic alternative is offered, serves only to drive farmers into the hands of the insurgents. Eradication should cease immediately. Alternative cultivation of nuts and fruits – easily viable in Helmand's fertile soil – should be encouraged within the secure zone by means of a generous subsidy to farmers and a secured route to markets in district centres. Opium traffickers, not farmers, should be the ones to suffer the wrath of the armed forces, through precision targeting and interdiction.
Implementation of these urgent measures would allow British forces in Helmand to de-escalate the level of violence and adopt a more discreet profile, less like an aggressive foreign army of occupation. Afghans and their traditional governing councils must be equal partners in this process. Without their support and leadership from village level every effort made by British forces will be futile.
So what does this mean for Nato? Well, if we get it right in Helmand, lessons might be learnt by our partners. The British experience in Helmand has been duplicated by other Nato actors in other provinces where military primacy has blown development out of the water. The current mud-slinging between the US and the rest of Nato over troop numbers utterly misses the point; that more troops means more violence unless the alleviation of Afghan poverty becomes Nato's priority. A unified command with equal commitment from member states in Afghanistan is a Nato pipe dream. Member countries will always do their own thing.
What is crucial is not that the Nato effort is neat or even very well co-ordinated, but that it improves the lives of ordinary local people. The majority of Afghans live in extreme poverty, yet 40 per cent of all aid to Afghanistan leaves the country in expatriate salaries. It has been said that – perhaps unusually – the Americans are teaching the Brits a lesson in the hearts and minds business, but in 2007, the US army spent $65,000 a minute on military operations in Afghanistan.
Development funding remains a lamentable fraction of that figure, as it does for the British. Rural poverty is the real enemy. Let us get it right in Helmand and let the rest of Nato follow our lead.
Leo Docherty served with the first British deployment in Afghanistan and is author of 'Desert of Death: a Soldier's Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan' published by FaberReuse content