As Helmand crumbles what can the British learn from their Fourth Afghan War?


 Photos: Corporal Gary Kendall RLC/MOD 2010

Photos: Corporal Gary Kendall RLC/MOD 2010


“Even if you kill all the teenagers, the next generation will join the Taleban.”

In August, 2017, The Guardian recently published an article on the resurgence of the Taleban across Helmand and Afghanistan. 'The war America can't win: how the Taliban are regaining control in Afghanistan'  by  Sune Engel Rasmussen reporting from Lashkar Gah appeared to confirm a dismal post-mortem for the British military campaign in Afghanistan; the efforts of International Security Assistance Force have failed in their objectives to uproot the Taleban and subjugate the narconomics of Helmand. 

"Places where British and American troops fought their hardest battles are now firmly under Taleban control. Babaji, the scene of one of biggest British air assaults in modern times, fell to the Taliban shortly after the Guardian visited last year. Marjah – where in 2010 thousands of US, British and Afghan troops launched the largest joint offensive in the war – is firmly in the control of the insurgents. In Musa Qala, the Taliban run a veritable government; in Lashkar Gah, they are close enough to occasionally lob rockets into the governor’s compound." 

These failures appeared to have worsened the conditions in which innocent men, women and children live as they are caught between government forces and the Taleban, coined 'Mafiastan' by journalist Robert Fisk. The British military have not been far from the spotlight in regards to its conduct in its Fourth Afghan War. In July, The Times published a story which made the front page detailing how a "rogue" Special Air Service unit was "suspected" of executing dozens of Afghan civilians in Helmand in 2011 and covered up the war crimes, placing the blame on government forces. This scandal comes as part of Operation NorthWood which is being conducted by the British Military Police are investigating abuses carried out by British soldiers against Afghan civilians during the continuing war.

The long-running case of British Marine, Alexander Blackman who was charged with the murder (this charge was later cleared and reduced to manslaughter) of a wounded Taliban fighter was another scandal that deeply affected the military establishment. 

"Now shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***. Its nothing you wouldn't do to us." Blackman was recorded in the transcript recording as he executed the wounded fighter. Upon returning to his unit, the convicted marine then went on to say "Obviously, this doesn't go anywhere fellas, I just broke the Geneva Convention." The incident - caught on camera by a fellow marine - and the Blackman Case created a stir in media over the nature of the British campaign in Afghanistan. 

Whether or not the SAS killings being investigated and the Blackman execution represented isolated incidents, they seem to be a further illustration that the British lost control of the military environment in which its soldiers were operating. The stress of combating an insurgency cannot be underestimated as Ledwidge points out. "Insurgency is squalid and terrifying for all involved. For the soldiers, any time spent outside the fort is a time of constant fear and suspicion of every local, each of whom may harbour hostile intent. There was a significant chance that they might not return the same way they left. Completing the patrol is raw courage of quite a remarkable kind." However, operating consistently under enormous pressure in these environments can lead to mistakes and war crimes. Ultimately, the true cost of the British war effort will never be known as NATO made little effort to record the fatalities incurred by the local Afghan population. 

In his books, Losing Small Wars: British military failure in Iraq and Afghanistan and Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain's Afghan War, the author demonstrates how (with research, personal experience and interview with senior officers) the political failures in Helmand fed military failure and led to a disastrous unravelling in Afghanistan. 

The deposition of the Taleban from power in Afghanistan in 2001, while successful, created problems, many of which the British were unprepared for. The Afghan Civil War's legacy remained unaddressed and the British made the mistake of reenergising the power of warlords and narcokhans, many of which the United States had developed strong ties with as they supported the mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan War (1979-1989) and post-2001 political landscape. The warlords and narcokhans were part of Afghanistan's problem and a product of the United States and Soviet Union's non-existent post-conflict solution for Afghanistan once the Soviet Afghan War had ended. 

Political fragmentation, economic meltdown, ethnic and sectarian warfare had engulfed Afghanistan in the 1990s. The movement of the Taleban (students) from Islamic madrasahs (seminaries) who were living as refugees in Pakistan vowed to bring peace to Afghanistan, establish law and order, disarm the population, impose sharia (Islamic law) and end the scourge of warlordism. In the aftermath of the invasion, the British were assigned to combat the drugs trade in Afghanistan. Afghanistan produces 90% of the world's opium and Helmand is a key asset accessing this profitable market. Helmand and the provincial capital, Sangin, are the biggest centres for production in the country, so whoever dominates the province can get a sizeable slice of the narco business.

The British, who initially deployed 3,300 men to Helmand, did not have the numbers to govern Sangin (a population of 200,000) let alone over 800,000 who lived in the province. Furthermore, thousands of Afghan farmers depended on opium agricultural production for their livelihoods so where the British destroyed/impounded produce, they fuelled resentment and exacerbated poverty. As Ledwidge grimly assesses, Helmand had "the complexities and undercurrents of Pablo Esobar's Medellin, Colombia further compounded by tribal and regional politics."

British intelligence severely underestimated the ties between the narcokhans, warlords and the Taleban in Helmand. Removing local narcokhan, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada upset the fragile network and relationships established to create order. Of-course locals largely disapproved of Akhundzada's rule, but he brought stability. The British brought blood and chaos by taking out the narcokhan. The power vacuum created meant that security was largely absent as there were not enough soldiers (Afghan government or British) to impose security which normal Afghan families craved. The United States, who gradually replaced the British, as Sune Engel Rasmussen demonstrates, have been unable to establish order in Helmand as the Taleban reestablishes itself across Helmand. 

With conflicting priorities, hampered by the U.S ties to many narcokhans and warlords, outnumbered, largely ignorant of their own history and unaware of the local sensitivities in Helmand, the British struggled to impose an agenda. Our military campaigned to uproot the Taleban and simaltaneously fought a drug war, deposing of Sher Muhammad Akhundzada who had kept order in the province and British soldiers doing joint operations with Afghan government forces who were about as alien to Helmandis as a British soldier from Croydon. This catalysed provincial disorder and it is little wonder that it produced a military environment that led to scandals involving NATO soldiers such as Alexander Blackman.  


Where does this leave Britain as a geopolitical, economic and military power? The defeats in the Afghan and Iraq Wars were not learned and followed by other catastrophic errors. The botched intervention in Libya in 2011, a disastrous covert war in Yemen and the limited airstrikes in Iraq and Syria have posed serious question marks over the United Kingdom's continued effectiveness as a great power. The saga of Brexit and the UK's departure from the European Union in 2016 was followed by a summer of tragedy and political division in 2017. A 2017 election, dotted by a series of terrorist attacks and the devastating Grenfell fire, and saw the fall of the Conservatives government majority rule as the Corbynite insurgency in UK politics and the tilt by Prime Minister May to the Democratic Union Party has widened the gap between right and left. At home and abroad, the UK is rudderless. 

In South Asia, where does the United Kingdom go as an international actor? In the context of Afghanistan, a combination of development, military training and lending its weight to diplomatic efforts in Central and South Asia are the next step for the United Kingdom in the region.

Of-course it cannot be denied that Western military support where needed plays a key role in supporting operations against groups such as Al-Qa'ida and ISIS. However these accomplishments mean little without a diplomatic, political and economic solutions to the crisis. In Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and beyond, no solutions have been found outside bombing and assassinating insurgents and terrorists in urban and rural areas and infrastructure where, so often, civilians casualties skyrocket and the socio-economic damage is severe. 

European powers, including the UK could play an important role in reducing tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the British have already helped broker key Afghanistan-Pakistan agreements in 2015 and 2017. Addressing the legacy of the Fourth Afghan War will be equally important, domestically and militarily as UK aid continues to play a tremendous role in supporting millions of men, women and children across the world, including hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan. Strengthening development programs in Afghanistan, fighting climate change, deterring nuclear proliferation and using soft power to navigate these issues will be crucial to strengthening its influence in South Asia.

However, if the United Kingdom want to ensure their war in Afghanistan was not in vain, it must address the situation in Pakistan with its allies including its ongoing struggle with India. Efforts to stabilise Afghanistan will be fruitless and international and grass-roots development initiatives will struggle to make a long-term impact if the violence in Afghanistan and Helmand province's crumbling security situation is not attached to the dilemmas of Pakistan. The North Korean nuclear crisis, the threat of famine in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia, the Arab Revolutions and the Middle Eastern Wars, and the conflict in Afghanistan (all very serious reasons to be concerned about international security) have distracted the British public from the severity of the India-Pakistan relationship.  


In November, 2016, Boris Johnson's visit to Pakistan and press conference underlined that the full economic potential of Pakistan was being hindered by its confrontation with India. "The long-standing position of the UK is that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting solution to the situation in Kashmir. I do not think it is for the UK to prescribe a solution or to act a mediator. What we want to do is to encourage both sides to maintain a positive dialogue. Of-course we are concerned about recent incidents on both sides of the line of control in Kashmir and we call for an end to the violence and for both sides to exercise restraint." Two further questions were fired Mr. Johnson's way which he refrained from answering directly, instead pointing to the economic potential for the region if both India and Pakistan worked to resolving their historical grievances. These grievances flared once again in September, 2016 when 19 Indian soldiers were killed by militants.

Improving ties with and between India and Pakistan, and strengthening relations with the latter will be increasingly important, particularly as its alliance with the United States is under the spotlight after President Trump's bullish speech on the Afghan War in August. Pakistan will pivot to China if it feels the Trump presidency and its allies are playing hardball on Afghanistan and India. In equal measure, the Kremlin will exploit these tensions, bringing its interests closer to those of Islamabad economically and militarily as the New Cold War expands. 

Prime Minister May's promises to contribute more drones and spyware to the Afghan military to hunt down terrorists is troubling. The United Kingdom must distance itself from the U.S drone programs in Pakistan and Afghanistan which  have caused tremendous damage to civilians in the hunt for terrorists and insurgents hostile to the West and other allies. In Pakistan, the CIA carried out drone strikes once every four days between 2004 - 2012, killing an estimated 2,640-3,474 civilians. The use of drones has fuelled anti-U.S sentiment from Yemen to Pakistan to Syria to Libya. Aligning the UK with these deadly and deeply unpopular drone programs will damage our national interests further as supposed to advancing them. 

Pakistan, historically, has used jihadi proxies to fight its enemies abroad. The costs have been appalling killing hundreds, if not thousands of Pakistani civilians across the fractious country. However, while morally abhorrent that Pakistani intelligence and its military are supporting the Afghan Taleban, the wider picture should remain clear. In the Middle East, the Gulf States are critical to Western economic interests, yet they have a contradictory ties with terrorist organisations such as Al-Qa'ida, ISIS and other jihādist proxies. Western leaders have been silent on their role in equipping the Saudi Arabian military as its bombs and starves Yemen as it has remained relatively quiet on the Pakistan's campaign in the FATA region which has displaced thousands of civilians and where journalists an activist alike are struggling to access the killing boxes where human rights violations are conducted with near impunity. 

The UK government - indeed the West - must realise that having a proactive relationship with Pakistan will define whether NATO's campaign in Afghanistan is successful. The Kashmiri conflict, while a dangerous fault line in the region, is not the only conflict plaguing Pakistan. Its involvement in Afghanistan was not addressed in the conference nor the continued war in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. 

For Pakistan, Afghanistan gives them strategic depth in their conflict with India. Invariably, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are complex, and hold no perfect solutions as the United Kingdom's international clout recedes. The painful failures of the wars in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, the "special relationship" with the United States, the results of the EU referendum, and the fractious nature of post-Brexit British politics have all successfully dented Britain's stature in international affairs as a military, economic and geopolitical power. 

In post-Brexit Britain, stronger commercial ties with growing economies such as Pakistan and India will be essential, as the global economic power shifts towards Asia. Domestically, revisiting our imperial legacy in countries such as Afghanistan and beyond and engraining that within our military institutions and culture is critical. In South Asia, India and Pakistan stand at cross-roads in their relationship with the West and the rest of the world. The United Kingdom must help ease that transition rather than aggravate the conflicts there. 


This does not necessarily mean becoming an apologist for British imperialism, rather it means recognising and respecting that British history often carries far greater weight and meaning in other countries' and their cultures collective memories. Many British people may forget their own history, but others do not. The Afghan and Iraqis were a strong example of this, and it contributed to the downfall of the British campaign in Helmand and Basra. Ultimately, a country, a community, an individual should never be held back by their history, it is about their actions in the now and how they wish to shape the future that define them and how they wish to be defined. Action define a character, a nation. The past must be respected for its complexity, debated fiercely and most importantly understood with clarity, but it cannot be undone. The United Kingdom, Britain, my home, does not know what it wants to be anymore.

More troublingly, it is experimenting in futility, shambling forward, a reanimated zombie, desperately trying be something that it can no longer be; the superpower. The Helmand campaigns and the Iraq War debacle exemplified the futility of the exercise and far from restoring British power and influence has hastened its decline and shunted the country deeper into a geo-political twilight zone. In the words of rogue M16 agent Silva to 007 in Skyfall, "You are living in a ruin, you just don't know it yet." The ruin is Britain as a great power, a crumbling shell being swept away by the momentum of history. 

While we must celebrate what the British people and its history brought to this world, we must respect and investigate the traumas the British Empire brought to countless, countless people and investigate our own defeats and setbacks and our tragedies outside our confrontations with Germany and Austro-Hungary in the First World War and Germany, Japan and its allies in the Second World War. The British Empire played an enormous role in shaping the modern world. Its colonial legacy played pivotal roles in shaping many contemporary conflicts still unfolding at this very moment from Sudan to India to Kenya to Palestine. It is our responsibility to remain engrained in finding solutions to these conflicts, however imperfect they are while accepting that soft power - as supposed to flaunting military might and an archaic British exceptionalism - maybe our primary and perhaps most important role in helping to shape a globalising community. Whether Brexit happens or not, isolating ourselves from global affairs, if not an impossible, would be a dangerous enterprise for economic and national security. 

2016 and 2017 have been chaotic and divisive for the United Kingdom and how it deals with Brexit, the string of attacks in London and Manchester and its economic uncertainty will be a major contributing factor to how it defines its relations with the rest of the world in the near future. However its role in the Middle East and Central Asia, particularly its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have polarised the public and left a stain on British foreign policy. Ignoring the legacy of our wars, particularly the failures as marked as the Middle Eastern Wars will catalyse the United Kingdom's decline as an international actor. 

Britain has an important role to play in Central and South Asia. Its historical record (however controversial and bloody at times) and cultural ties alongside contemporary military and political developments demand its continued commitment to the stability and prosperity of the region. Acknowledging our failings in the Fourth Afghan War, the shortcomings of military operations conducted, and addressing the war crimes some (not the majority) of our soldiers committed will go someway to restoring the credibility of the British Armed Forces. This will go some way to ensuring the Afghan civilians, the British soldiers and civilians who died, the thousands wounded, maimed and psychologically scarred, and the families effected by the war in Afghanistan and related terror attacks will not have died and suffered so dearly for nothing. 


Matthew C.K Williams