U.K. troops use local initiatives to thwart Taliban fighters
“When we went out on Herrick 14 in April, we characterized our tour as sitting on the seam,” says Royal Marines Brig. Gen. Ed Davis, commander of Task Force Helmand (TFH), referring to the U.K.'s six-month deployment of troops to the Afghan province, which ended in October. “And that's exactly how it played out.”
The “seam” Davis mentioned in a post-op briefing in London on the deployment (code-named Herrick), was between security operations led by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and control beginning to pass to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). “Transition” has been the British military's watchword this year, and with the drawdown of personnel and materiel ahead of the planned end of combat operations in 2014, the establishment of sustainable indigenous security, governance and economic power centers is vital.
The success Davis trumpeted—significant acts of violence down 45% year-on-year across the British area of operations, and by 86% in the Nad Ali South district—reflects a cumulative effort. Successive Herrick deployments sapped the insurgency's strength and will to fight, while training programs and mentoring helped grow indigenous security.
The province also benefited from strong leadership by Governor Gulab Mangal, “a non-corrupt and extremely dignified man, meaningfully leading his district and its governance architecture into the future with a vision and a design,” says Royal Marine Lt. Col. Oliver Lee of 45 Commando, commander of Combined Force Nad Ali South.
Lee also says the will of the people “turned against the insurgent. We characterized the rank-and-file Afghans of Nad Ali South as 80,000 potential counterinsurgents. That's about 40 times the number of combined ISAF and ANSF personnel there, and altogether more powerful by a considerable order of magnitude.”
The key to harnessing that power lay in breaking the cycle of violence that would spike during the summer. Rather than confront the insurgency, Davis's force set about stifling it, by reducing violence enough to permit greater freedom of movement among the public, strengthening their resolve to resist Taliban intimidation and bolstering security.
“When we arrived, the people said they despised the insurgency and the violence it imposed on their lives, but they were not in a position to do anything about that for themselves,” Lee explains. “We deduced that the one thing that might grow their confidence to build on their hatred of the insurgency was if we disproved the theory that summer fighting was inevitable.”
On a visit to Lashkar Gah in August, DTI observed aspects of this plan in practice. (See DTI October, p. 28, for a report on British technology in Afghanistan.) Control of security there was officially handed over to ANSF by ISAF on July 20. ANSF, however, had been unofficially running security operations for months, and the themes Davis and Lee were to highlight after their tour were already well-developed.
“The most important is the confidence of the local people,” says Col. Andrew Jackson, deputy commander of TFH. “They've seen what it's like to have security . . . what it's like . . . without being impeded and forced to pay taxes by the Taliban. So if the Taliban bide their time and come back, they're going to find it a much more difficult prospect in 2014 than when they were in control.”
Helping to reinforce security are commercial and infrastructure projects, locally planned and managed with help and funding from foreign agencies including the U.K.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). Among the most ambitious is a plan to turn Bost Airfield, south of Lashkar Gah, into Afghanistan's third international airport, build an agri-business park adjacent to it with storage and processing facilities for fruit crops, and link the complex to the main highway with a new road. Attempting this without the public believing it can be completed and operated safely would be impossible.
“It's easy to forget that in the 1960s and '70s, Helmand was a relatively prosperous province,” says Michael O'Neill, head of the PRT. “Some of the support for private sector development is about recovering what was there before. It's a fertile place, and if they start getting access to markets and things like cold storage, distribution facilities, the road network and air links, you can see plenty of potential.”