Before 2006 you would have been hard pressed to find any British citizen — or, indeed, soldier — who had heard of Helmand, and fewer still who could place it on a map.
Four years later this vast area of yellow desert crisscrossed by streaks of blue and green — the life-giving waterways and the strips of vegetation that they support — is branded on the national psyche. Many now regard it as the graveyard of British foreign policy, another theatre of war that we were quick to enter with little idea of how we might exit. For many, Helmand is Afghanistan.
The start of the campaign singularly failed to live up to the political billing; the hope of the Defence Secretary at the time that British troops might not have to fire a single shot now looks tragically, inexplicably misguided. Millions of rounds have been fired, troop numbers have grown to about 9,000, and nearly 300 have not come home alive. In the early days it did not help that while soldiers were dying in Helmand, the British Task Force headquarters was hundreds of kilometres away in Kandahar and that our politicians had little direction on how to prosecute the campaign.
Yet, with our Nato colleagues, British Forces have achieved a large degree of success, despite what the naysayers might suggest. First and foremost, they have bought the political and military leadership time; time to work out exactly what we are supposed to be doing and how we might get out of there once we have done it. Second, they have taken control and held all the important district centres under a terrible onslaught from the insurgents. This alone has allowed the provincial government to spread its authority to what were lawless districts.
Controlling a country of 26 million people who live among a landscape that makes the Moon look hospitable was never going to be possible or desirable. But once the initial aim of knocking the Taleban from power had been achieved, it was neither expedient nor morally right to sail straight back home.
We have an obligation to give the country at least a decent chance of standing on its own two feet and, through the training of the Afghan police and Army, we are helping to do that. That much blood has been shed — among Service personnel, but also that of so many Afghan civilians — to achieve progress is, sadly, what happens in war. Soldiers are well aware of the dangers they will face. But they like to think the sacrifice worthwhile. They want to leave places such as Sangin, Musa Qala, Nad-e Ali, Garmsir, Kajaki — village and towns that, from now on, will be as much part of regimental history as Waterloo and Imjin — feeling something has been achieved.
That is why many understandable questions are being raised about “our boys” coming under the command of a US general in Helmand. Is it a sign of failed British policy and leadership? Does it herald the first step on the road to an ignominious British withdrawal?
The obvious point is that we have been here before. Operations in Afghanistan are multinational and Brits were commanded by the Dutch and Canadians in 2006-07 and 2008. Dividing the regional command into two parts makes absolute sense. This is partly for command and control reasons, because of the large increase in US troops that will take place this summer. For men and the women at the sharp end, manning the forward operating bases, taking the fight to the enemy every day, little will change.
But this is not just a matter of cool-headed judgment, it is also an affair of the heart. So any sense that the Americans are stepping in to save us is hard to countenance. There is an analogy with the Second World War, where the British (alongside others) held back the Nazi onslaught for four long years, only for the US to enter the conflict and bring about victory. Now we have the Americans saying that they will have Helmand under control within 18 months, as if everything that went before — every British life lost, every effort made — added up to nothing. However, in reality US forces can only step in because of what went before. This is not a British failure in Helmand. With limited resources it is a British success.
But perhaps we are being too precious. In battle, size often matters — it really is a numbers game. And what the Americans bring is manpower. They have 20,000 soldiers in Helmand, rising to 50,000; although, to our credit, much of what they are doing is based on experience and insight gained by the British.
It is important that this country’s relatively limited military resources are used to best effect and it is likely that from next April we might find ourselves in Kandahar, where the insurgency is particularly strong and operations are under British command.
The truth is we must look at Afghanistan as a whole, and not get dewy eyed over any particular piece of real estate. As soldiers, we must go where we are told to, remembering with pride those who won’t be making the journey with us; those we have lost.
Captain Doug Beattie, MC, the author of Task Force Helmand and An Ordinary Soldier.