No More Friendly Fire

With Tony Blair set to testify before the U.K. inquiry into American wartime arrogance, British soldier Patrick Hennessey returns to Afghanistan to find greater cooperation among allies—and more care for Afghan concerns.

A senior British officer once described Helmand province, uncharitably if not inaccurately, as “miles and miles of fuck all with a river running through it.” Slap in the middle of that “fuck all,” sited for its natural well and its isolation (the clear views 20 miles across the desert in all directions providing better security than any fence), a city is rising from the desert. And what was just a rugged military outpost a few years ago is now one of the busiest airfields in the world. Driving from the British Camp Bastion to the U.S. Camp Leatherneck (the sprawling base is already so big it would take too long to walk), I’m reminded of the episode of The West Wing in which President Bartlett (an icon whom I like to imagine all world leaders aspire to emulate) is agonizing over a decision on deploying troops overseas—and in a particularly heated moment of drama is reminded by Leo, his invaluable chief of staff: “We don’t always know how it ends.”

Returning to Afghanistan after two years this Christmas, I was impressed by the changes already resulting from the fresh resources the surge of U.S. troops has allowed.

Parallels between The West Wing and reality have become a bit clichéd since President Obama swept (Santos-like) to power, but it is not hard to imagine a similar hesitancy behind the real president’s long deliberation over whether or not to commit the tens of thousands of extra troops required by General Stanley McChrystal’s strategy for Afghanistan. Back in October, I argued here that President Obama should send reinforcements and should do so as quickly as possible. On the home fronts in both the U.K. and Canada, there was a growing feeling that American indecision was costing the International Security Assistance Force lives. In London, as the Chilcot Inquiry picks at the scabs of why Britain so enthusiastically joined the U.S. in invading Iraq and brings weekly revelations of fresh inequalities in the “special relationship,” the relief that greeted the ultimate validation of the McChrystal plan gave way, in some quarters, to disquiet at the prospect of American dominance of the mission.

It says something about the gap in understanding between those arguing politics and strategy at home and those getting stuck on the battlefield that there is no such disquiet in Helmand. Returning to Afghanistan after two years this Christmas, I was impressed by the changes already resulting from the fresh resources the surge of U.S. troops has allowed. Driving past rows upon rows of iso-containers and combat engineers busying themselves with new roads, runways, and accommodation, it would be an overstatement to say it is already possible to see how it ends. But amid the IEDs and ambushes that are the disturbing routine in southern Afghanistan, the beefed-up ISAF troops have a renewed sense of confidence and purpose.

Four years ago the Afghan National Army started building a permanent camp, Shorabak, for its Helmand Brigade in this most isolated of spots in the middle of the Dasht-i-Margo—“the desert of death.” They were accompanied by a small detachment of U.S. Navy and Special Forces personnel in the appropriately named Camp Tombstone. When the British took over responsibility for Helmand in 2006, Camp Bastion was constructed next door with a small runway and a couple of thousand troops moved in. Three years on, Camp Bastion has doubled in size, been joined by the Marine Corps base Camp Leatherneck and enveloped Shorabak. A second, extended runway is being built, helipads seem to be breeding like rabbits and the more grandiose of plans envisage bowling alleys and cinemas to accommodate the influx of principally American troops to the province. According to the soldiers in Task Force Thor—the highly impressive counter-IED unit currently assisting the British in central Helmand—Camp Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak will be the largest base the U.S. military has built in "hostile" territory since the Vietnam War when it’s all done; a striking, blast-proof monument to the commitment here.

British politicians made no secret of their impatience with President Obama’s long decision-making process, but there’s no sense of resentment or “late again” down in Helmand. The British military are probably more aware than most of the extent to which the U.S. was already committed in Afghanistan and the extent to which the entire mission was dependent upon that commitment. British troops in Bastion are glad to see the incoming Marines, not least because they love trying to sneak in to the well-stocked American dining facilities for a cheeky burger. At higher levels, concerns about contrasting military cultures in a joint operating environment have largely been allayed by the clarity and coherency of the McChrystal plan. I was lucky enough to be invited to the Mojave Desert in 2008 to help prepare the U.S. Marines for their deployment to Helmand and saw firsthand the efforts being undertaken to mitigate the Corps’ sometimes gung-ho tendencies—essential for war-fighting but sometimes a handicap in counterinsurgency.

Separating the “people” from the “insurgents” is the essence of counterinsurgency doctrine and at the heart of McChrystal’s strategy. It’s an easy concept to understand, but not to implement, and the real impact of the arrival of increased numbers of U.S. troops is being felt by the British troops focused on Helmand’s population. When I was last in Helmand in 2007, we were spread paper-thin across the province. Now Lieutenant Colonel Roly Walker, the commanding officer, 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards (my former Regiment), can concentrate his thousand-strong battlegroup in a much smaller area with much greater effect. The commanding officer is wary of over-simplifying counterinsurgency, emphasizing to me that it’s not sufficient merely to drive a wedge between the local population and the Taliban, especially where the insurgency is so complex and so deeply interwoven into the fabric of the region as it is here. The Grenadiers have the difficult task of empowering the locals in Helmand to make a choice—to embrace the regeneration and slow, occasionally faltering, but largely progressive extension of governmental influence, or remain under the despotic control of the medieval Taliban. Sitting opposite the commanding officer in his planning tent are as many civilians as fellow soldiers; the POLAD (political adviser) and STABAD (stabilization adviser) are two of the most important men in camp and work closely with the Battlegroup Influence and Media Officers, all posts which didn’t even exist last time round. Although a fine balance has to be maintained between offensive operations to extend security and weaken the insurgency, and development of the region, the balance seems to be shifting toward development and it’s the uplift in troop numbers which has allowed that development to gather pace.

The ANA soldiers who’ll be here long after Bastion and Leatherneck have been abandoned have perhaps the most useful perspective on things. They have watched the expansion with a certain fascination and on a joint U.S./U.K./ANA operation I ask them what they make of the big changes taking place. They are still skeptical of the M16s they have been issued, but are big fans of the Humvees that are replacing many of their Ranger vehicles. They think the Americans have better uniforms, but the British better hair. They are aware of the slight differences in doctrine and training and kit, but also aware that none of those differences are really important—the huge expansion of Bastion-Leatherneck-Shorabak and the extra troops it will accommodate are what matters.

Patrick Hennessey served as a captain and platoon commander in the Grenadier Guards in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now training to be a barrister. He is the author of The Junior Officers' Reading Club, a bestseller in the U.K. that will be published in the US next year by Riverhead.