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What the government won't tell you: we are losing Afghan hearts

Daily Telegraph
08 April 2007
By Adam Holloway
Our success or failure in Helmand depends not on warlords, or the governor of the province, or even special forces soldiers, but on the ordinary Afghans. And while we are spectacularly winning the war at the tactical level against the Taliban, we are rapidly losing the fight for those ordinary hearts and minds.
The Taliban cannot beat our brave and committed Armed Forces in any sort of conventional military engagement. But the Afghan people also trusted us to provide security and reconstruction: as they see it, we are providing neither.
Recently, I travelled to Helmand, not with the Army but under my own arrangements to talk to ordinary Afghans. On official trips I speak to everyone but them. Sometimes in the bases, talking to senior officers and officials, you feel as though you are on Salisbury Plain with the heating turned up. Such conversations are surreally devoid of local Afghan influence, save the edicts of the Kabul government.
In Helmand I learned that while the Afghans want us there, it is so that we provide precisely that reconstruction and security. We the British talk a
good plan in terms of development and governance.
The only problem is that we are not delivering our "comprehensive approach". The Department for International Development's contribution has been woeful.
"They sit in their office in the British base and write reports for London," said one local.
Only a few months ago the Taliban were a remote force, but now, as one person put it, "they are not in the mountains - they are in the houses." Not a mile from the British base fly white Taliban flags.
A friend of mine narrowly missed abduction recently just the other side of the river from Lash Kar Gar, the provincial capital. Some families are said to be sending a son to work with the Taliban - to protect the poppy fields, and for $10 a day. Our Royal Engineers have built checkpoints on the edges of Lash Kar Gar, but the Afghan army are said to be too afraid to man them at night - so security, even in this centre of an "Afghan Development Zone", remains an aspiration. Other checkpoints merely provide cover from view for Afghan police to rob road users. The Afghan government's department of health is reported to ask Taliban permission before carrying out child inoculations in most rural areas: this is "peace through reality".
There is the international dimension too - more Iraq-style roadside bombs (they are learning), as well as command and control based in Pakistan: after some engagements 25 per cent of the dead are reported to be foreigners to the country. Since 2001 the Taliban have undoubtedly reorganised at the grassroots, as one might expect. But one never expected the Afghan villagers - who mainly detested them then - to, if not embrace them, now see them increasingly as somehow their feared protector.
Of course my knowledge is based on imperfect information, but I think we are contributing to the insurgency. While Afghans have cheered our troops following engagements with the Taliban, there seemed to be a widespread feeling amongst the people I spoke to in Lash Kar Gar that we are killing a lot of people through bombing, that there are many thousands of displaced people from the north, that people in the north are angry with the British, and that the Taliban are the only people who can protect poppy crops. In a sense it does not matter whether or not this is true. What matters is that they have come to think this, and that the Taliban exploit this and so are winning the information war.
Most families in Helmand are in some way involved in opium production. While the US wants mass eradication programmes, the Royal Marines believe that eradication fuels the insurgency, and that unless you have some sort of alternative lifestyle for people you should not destroy poppy. The UK might be the "lead" nation on drugs, yet we continue to help with eradication and recently supplied - via the Royal Logistics Corps base in Kandahar - 80 tractors for the purpose. So we are effectively throwing resources at a policy that results in increased violence against our troops. One official told me that we had to do some eradication, otherwise the US would steam in and do a lot more - so our eradication is a means of managing the US, not a means of managing insurgency.
It is not as if there is any sort of meaningful development in Helmand. Ministers are bombarded with statistics about the money being spent on this: a dam here, irrigation there, a road construction project somewhere else. But, particularly in Helmand, it is small change compared with the military spending. We are also passing development cash through the ministries in Kabul, not spending it directly on projects branded as British in Helmand province. Even though we are doing something for the people there, they cannot see it.
We are brightly told that next year one of the UN agencies will come to town, and that, anyway, you can't have development until you have security. I think it is the other way round: you won't have security until you show the Afghans that we really are here to help.
What is wrong with paying Afghans to do the work themselves? Suppose there are 200,000 five-person families in Helmand (that figure is as accurate as can be given). Until the international funding ran out, there was a very large agricultural development programme run by an Afghan engineer in the province. According to that engineer, a family of five would need four acres of orchard to sustain a reasonable life. He says that his own programme could achieve that result at the cost of around 250 an acre. Much of that money would be used to pay farmers and their families to do the work needed to convert their land to fruit crops. Multiply 1,000 by 200,000 families, and you get the figure of 200 million. It is a staggering amount of money. But it is considerably less than we are already spending per year on the campaign in Helmand.
The engineer believes that a determined effort at creating alternative livelihoods would make a gigantic difference to the insurgency. I am sure he is right. Once the orchards (or whatever mix of alternatives you eventually deliver) mature to production, most families won't want to produce opium. After that, the farmers who were producing legitimate crops might not feel like "lending" their sons to the Taliban. And once that happened, a virtuous circle of increasing peace and prosperity would have a chance of being established
But that is not what is happening today. Despite everything you hear from ministers on the news, Helmand is on the edge of a precipice. The only people, apart from the British public, who are fooled by the official reports insisting that everything is "on target" in Afghanistan are the ministers back in London who read them.
The officials who write the reports know perfectly well that they do not give an accurate picture. As one senior MI6 officer put it to me: "No one gets promoted by saying things are going badly in public. They do in private, and that just makes the cynicism so much worse."
The Afghans themselves of course know what is really happening. The Government's attempts to export the arts of spin to rural Helmand have been a dismal failure. Pretending black is white may have worked in Britain. It doesn't work in Afghanistan.
We are in Afghanistan for the right reasons. Ministers rightly point to the many good things that are happening beyond the military activity, and you don't change a society like this in seven days. Our troops are keeping their side of the bargain and performing with great heroism, buying time for development and governance initiatives to take hold. But the Armed Forces are being let down by the absence of these things.
A major reason that Iraq has not been a success is because, as a coalition, we failed to get to grips with the most basic need of the Iraqi people: security. Our Government needs to wake up to the real possibility of another strategic failure in Afghanistan if we do not turn words into action very, very soon. We can still do something about it, but there's not much time. If we do not, it will not only be the Afghan people who will be in greater danger: Britain will be as well.
Adam Holloway is Conservative MP for Gravesham and a member of the Defence Select Committee.
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