My friend Niels Vistisen presented his co-authored report Afghanistan, Lessons Identified 2001 – 2014 to the Danish Parliament today. Niels was Political Adviser (POLAD) to Salim Rodi, the Governor of Nahr-E-Saraj in 2012. I’m most struck by the report’s observation: ‘It became increasingly obvious that even though ISAF won all of the battles, NATO was not winning the war.’
The Royal Danish Defence College was tasked to ‘investigate the stabilisation efforts and military operations in Afghanistan to establish how they were integrated and concerted and assess where possible their outcomes in relation to the indicators of progress, i.e. security, governance and development.’
I saw very little evidence of integration of effort in Afghanistan and this was a constant source of frustration:
“The clearance op would stir up a hornets’ nest, making Yakchal a dangerous and unpleasant place to live in the process, but there was no plan to hold the ground for more than a few days once it had been cleared. The insurgents would quickly return once we had departed.
When I briefed the DST members on the plan they looked at me blankly. I had naïvely assumed they would want to exploit the temporary security bubble our presence would create to deliver some positive stabilisation effect. A polio vaccination programme perhaps, a shura to engage with their elected representatives, some infrastructure project such as dredging or repairing the complex irrigation system that was the only source of water so far from the Helmand River.
Anything that might add some truth to the fiction that a better life lay ahead with GIRoA.
Bruno, the DST leader looked confused, but some of the other team members visibly flushed with anger and stamped out of the briefing room. Bruno explained: ‘We don’t really get involved with what the military are doing and have our own projects and priorities.’ I’d managed to seriously upset some of his colleagues by daring to suggest that we might work together for the common good.
So much for the ‘Comprehensive Approach’ as defined in the joint doctrine manual on ‘Security and Stabilisation’. As with so many of the doctrine manuals I’d read, the authors appeared to have gone to great efforts creating complex definitions to describe relatively simple concepts. In this case:
‘The comprehensive approach is broader than cross‑government, it is also a multi‑agency and usually a multinational response. Mutually‑supporting cross‑departmental and multi‑agency effort should enable comprehensive tactical activity to deliver overwhelming campaign effect. The military will set the security conditions and lead on aspects of Security Sector Reform (SSR) such as military capacity‑building. Civilian state and non‑state institutions lead on: governance; engagement and reconciliation; police and justice sector reform; restoration of basic services and infrastructure; economic and financial development; and longer‑term social and infrastructure development.’
In 1933, Colonel (later Field Marshal) Irwin Rommel stated: ‘The British write some of the best doctrine in the world; it is fortunate that their officers do not read it.’
I’d read a lot of doctrine as I’d prepared for Afghanistan and couldn’t agree with his assessment of the quality. Much of it seemed impenetrable and verbose to me. But at least I had read it. It appeared that my colleagues in the DST had not.
This was to be a recurring theme of my time in Afghanistan. Whenever we mounted a major operation I would appeal to the DST to follow up with some governance, engagement or infrastructure activity to deliver overwhelming campaign effect, but this was always considered to be too difficult or not a priority for them. Even though some of the DST members were to become my friends, by the end of my time in Helmand I was barely able to conceal my contempt for their organisation’s woeful contribution to the mission.”
Although Niels’ report does not mention it, the most obvious outcome in relation to the indicators of progress is staring us all in the face: The Taliban control most of rural Helmand Province. All of the contested ground over which British and Danish troops fought is now in the hands of the Taliban and, if the current reports from Afghanistan are accurate, Helmand is ‘on the verge of collapse’ with the towns of Gereshk and Lashka Gah under siege.
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.