Two years ago, as I flew out of Afghanistan at the end of an intense and challenging tour with the British Army, a local farmer was seriously injured by an IED on one of the very roads I had spent the last seven months patrolling. I flew back out this Christmas to visit my former comrades in the Grenadier Guards, halfway through their second tour of the country in three years, to see what progress had been made in the region. The day I arrive, an IED in the rejuvenated market in Nad-e Ali killed four civilians and injured nine more—the cowardly attack seeming to make a mockery of the notion of progress in the region. The casualties are confirmed in the evening brief in Forward Operating Base Shawqat, the joint International Security Assistance Force/Afghan National Army base barely a kilometer from where the attack took place. The mood in camp is somber and reflective, a combination of the bad news and being far from home on Christmas Eve, but everyone remains confident that progress is being made.
The Taliban’s latest moves are the actions of one former comrade called “desperate, evil men.” Their efforts, like the bomb before Christmas, are increasingly alienating the locals.
Shawqat is itself testament to that progress. When I was last here, we drove undermanned patrols past the ruined fort (a 19th-century relic of previous British adventures in the area), skirmishing with Taliban, but we were too vulnerable to stop and too few in number to have an influence. The arrival of the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in 2008 has allowed the British in Helmand to hand over responsibility for the vast open swaths of desert to the Americans and focus on the “Green Zone”—the crucial acres astride the Helmand River, criss-crossed with irrigation ditches and canals which are the veins and arteries of the agricultural province, where the battle for the south will be won or lost. At a heavy price (108 British soldiers have died in the conflict in 2009, the bloodiest year for the British Army since the Falkland Islands were liberated in 1982), previously lawless areas have been retaken and bases like Shawqat—ramshackle and rudimentary but crucially secure—have been established. Where two years ago a couple of hundred of us tried in vain to dominate this hugely complex seam of fields, villages, and markets, now thousands of British, Estonian, Danish and, crucially, American troops partner with the vastly improved Afghan army in protecting not the ground, but the people themselves.
For these soldiers—who live alongside the International Security Assistance Force troops in Shawqat and are increasingly taking the lead on local security operations—the change in strategy and uplift in numbers hasn’t come a moment too soon. The Afghan National Army is a force transformed in new uniforms and with new weapons and vehicles, but are as forward and honest as they always were. Captain Qiam, a veteran of the Northern Alliance and one of the most natural warriors I have ever come across, makes an interesting observation: The Russians came with hundreds of thousands; “You,” he says wagging a finger at me as if I were personally responsible, “arrived with just hundreds.” I’m not sure his numbers are exactly right, nor that the top brass at ISAF would wish to invite too many comparisons with the defeated Red Army. But it’s Qiam’s next point which strikes me. “We have been asking for many years now for more help, finally it comes,” he says. It’s a subtle but crucial distinction and one that the message-board bores never seem to appreciate; yes, we know the “mighty Red Army” was defeated when they invaded Afghanistan (as were the British repeatedly before them). But they were an invading army. For the moment, the ISAF are guests and enjoy the support not only of the soldiers and policemen they work alongside but, judging from the response of the villagers I meet on patrol and the opinions voiced at local shurahs, a substantial majority of the Afghan people.
Keeping that support is as hard and important as defeating the enemy. Two years ago, Qiam and I fought ferocious gun battles in these fields, often sustained by overwhelming air- and firepower. Now the insurgents know that they cannot win in a straight fight and are increasingly resorting to terror. The Taliban, aware of the propaganda value of civilian casualties (70 percent of which, according to the U.N. guys in Kabul, they inflict themselves), go to hideous lengths to try and force ISAF to cause them. Complex ambushes are sprung from compounds where families have been locked in. Irrigation systems are destroyed in attempts to flood the security forces out of key checkpoints. But the tactics are backfiring. Another of my former comrades, Company Sergeant Major Syed Marajuddin, reflects that these are the actions of “desperate, evil men.” Their efforts, like the bomb before Christmas, are increasingly alienating the locals. The mantra for the ISAF troops, meanwhile, is “courageous restraint.” One patrol I join, which is ambushed, exits under heavy fire rather than risk a followup action that could cause collateral damage. The troops in the flooded outstations conduct targeted operations against identifiable enemy fighters and, for the rest of the time, wear Wellies. Since the McChrystal plan has been put into effect, civilian casualty rates are down. It’s still frustratingly slow, still too frequently painful and still unremittingly dangerous, but compared to the Helmand I left two years ago, this is progress.
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. which will be published in the U.S. next year by Riverhead.