The latest US Diplomatic cables to be released by whistle blowing website Wikileaks centre around criticism of UK forces deployed in Helmand Province. The comments were made by both US and Afghan officials over the period 2007-2009. They criticise the ability of UK forces to cope with the security within the district of Sangin, and their approach to anti-narctotics operations.
In mid 2007, General Dan McNeil Commander of NATO forces, criticised the British Forces failure to deal decisively with the drugs trade in Helmand. He claimed that the British had made of a mess of things and that our tactics were wrong.
Then in January 2009. Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand province told the American Vice President, Joe Biden that American Forces were urgently needed as the British security in Sangin was inadequate.
“I do not have anything against them (the British) but they must leave their bases and engage with the people.” Gov Mangal
These new revelations are clearly a dent in the ego of the Ministry of Defence, but on reflection, are the really saying anything we didn’t already know?
At the beginning of 2007 the number of British Forces deployed on OP HERRICK consisted of around 6,500 troops. Whose area of operations was the size of Wales and with a population similar to that of Liverpool and Birmingham combined (around 1.4 Million). Over the next four years this increased to closer to 10,000. Still not a particularly large force, not when you consider that this figure includes a large number of supporting troops that will not leave the main base, Camp Bastion.
Around the Forward Operating Bases such as FOB Jackson on the edge of Sangin, the local population tend to live in a maze of small streets and small settlements. Soldiers regularly leave these bases to conduct security patrols, counter IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) operations and to re-assure the local community. But we cannot have a soldier standing on each street corner for 24hours of the day. When we return to the FOB we essentially lose direct control of the all of the ground except for that we dominate i.e. have eyes on.
More troops and more patrols gives us a greater chance of securing an area, but ultimately we can only achieve our goal through gaining the trust of the local community and this takes time. Governor Mangal is quite right to request for more troops, if I was the Governor of Helmand then I too would want as many troops as possible in order to achieve stability. Although the American Forces have now taken over Sangin District the British Forces did make huge progress despite Governor Mangal’s words and despite large British casualties. When I was first in Afghanistan in 2007 driving though Sangin was like driving through a ghost town. But when I returned to Helmand in 2009 it was clear to see that the town had made great progress and once again it had vibrant market and community. Far from job done, but progress none the less.
As for comments concerning our counter-narcotics operations, the British have never focussed as heavily on this area as the Americans have. Although whilst on our operations the British Forces will confiscate and destroy drugs that are found in large enough quantities. We have never claimed to have the same approach as the US and as organisations such as the Poppy Eradication Force.
The one thing that all of the compromising cables have in common is that they are all conversational comments made in diplomatic circles, that were never intended to reach their subjects ears. I’m in no doubt that the majority of international diplomats and politicians have at some point bent the truth or exposed another nations weaknesses, just to ensure their own countries best interests are maintained. As for the men and women in Whitehall, I would hope that none of them would be naive enough to not realise this. But what I think it does bring home is that whilst I’m in no doubt that we have a fantastic and extremely capable Armed Forces. We have once again been shown that we are not the force that we once were, and that we must not bite off more than we can chew in an attempt to prove otherwise.