The Institute for the Study of War has released an outstanding report by Jeffrey Dressler on “Securing Helmand: Understanding and Responding to the Enemy.” The report surveys the province, the enemy, the Taliban’s campaign plan, the British experience in Helmand, and the recent ISAF operations in it. It also contains some excellent maps. There is too much in the report to summarize: anyone interested in the war should read it in full. But it makes three points that are of particular interest to those, like myself, who have followed Britain’s contribution to the war.
First, though the report does not state this explicitly, it is inescapably clear that the UK — and indeed the U.S. — has a serious problem with operational security. In June 2009, Britain and Afghan National Army forces undertook Operation Panther’s Claw in central Helmand, near Lashkar Gah. As the report notes, “[Days] before the launch of the operation, drones monitoring the town recorded scores of residents fleeing . . . the British faces relatively modest resistance as they advanced towards the bazaar [of Babaji]. They soon discovered that the entire area had been abandoned.” It is very hard to see how the UK or the U.S. can follow a course of shaping, clearing, holding, and building if their operations are known to the enemy so far and so clearly in advance.
Second, much of the criticism of the UK’s operations in Afghanistan has centered on the shortage of helicopters and IED-resistant vehicles. There is much truth to this, as the report makes clear: it points out that Britain is so short on helicopters that it had to borrow six Chinooks from the U.S. to launch Panther’s Claw in the first place. But the criticism is not entirely persuasive. The report also makes it clear that Britain’s strategy has moved from “peace support and counter-narcotics” to a “platoon house” approach based on positioning small outposts throughout the province. What it did not try to do was to clear and hold population centers.
In this context, the fact that British forces have taken serious losses from IEDs is not hard to understand: as Sam Kiley writes in his recently published book Desperate Glory, British influence “extends only so far as the soldiers can walk and fight.” Because British forces don’t control the ground, they leave themselves open to repeated IED attacks on their patrols. Britain’s shortage of helicopters and IED-resistant vehicles is real, and a very serious problem — but one that has to be seen in the light of the strategic deficiencies.
Third, the report points out that while Britain has not effectively shaped, cleared, or held the battlefield, it has devoted excessive emphasis to building on it. Of course, building is a good thing. But the report makes it clear that, for Britain, “building” is as much a public-relations strategy, designed to maintain support for the war at home and to achieve victory in Afghanistan through demonstration effects, as it is part of a counterinsurgency campaign that must begin by establishing security. The Kajaki Dam operations in September 2008 are particularly depressing in this regard: Britain mobilized 5,000 troops and numerous planes and vehicles to deliver turbines to the Dam in an effort to restore electrical power to southern Afghanistan. In a limited sense, the operation worked. But now British forces are pinned down on a hill overlooking the Dam and “the enemy’s control of the battle-space . . . offers it the freedom of movement to conduct coordinated ambushes and IED attacks largely at will.”
Britain can fix these problems if it wants to. But right now, the government — adrift and rudderless in advance of an election it will almost certainly lose — looks as though it is still more interested in denying problems than in addressing them. As Michael Yon — caution, harsh language — warns in one of his latest dispatches, it seems to him as though those in charge in London “wish to separate realities from readers.” And given what the realities say about them, this — though dangerous and depressing —comes as no surprise.