Fighting and government, agriculture and opium poppies in Helmand

(© - see footnote - Charles Anselm Bennett – last_pithhelmet@yahoo.co.uk / imbwabennett@btinternet.com - 00447831 289086 / 00306944 164077)

More than two years after the British took over responsibility for Helmand, in terms of ‘supporting the Afghan Government’ both militarily and in the fields of reconstruction, development, and counter-narcotics, why has so little changed for the better? Indeed as much or more deterioration can be observed as improvement, and in many ways a sort of stalemate is developing, in spite of large amounts of money and gradually (but belatedly) increasing numbers of troops and quantities of equipment being thrown at the problem.

The ‘problem’, and attempts to solve it, can be seen as being composed of four main parts, although all are inextricably interlinked in a disheartening and very vicious circle.

First and most obvious to the outside world is the security problem, which is at least superficially a matter of defeating the Taleban and creating some form of stability so that the other aspects of the problem can be dealt with. It is of course not as simple as this bald statement might imply, as will be seen; who are the ‘Taleban’ and why do they exist?

Second, and if anything even more painfully obvious to ordinary Afghans, is the problem of ‘Governance’ and corruption; to get to grips with this at least some understanding of Afghan society and recent history is necessary, of the relative positions of tribalism and ‘democracy’ and of the continuing influence of ‘warlordism’ and ‘drug-thuggery’ in Afghanistan.

Third, and again superficially well known to the outside world, but very much a problem for Afghanistan internally as well, is the Narcotics problem. Helmand has become even more central to the Afghan opium/heroin business over the last two years, both in terms of its huge share of the opium poppy crop and because of the developing links between narcotics and the ‘insurgency’ in southern Afghanistan.

Fourth (and by no means least, although last), is the problem of the economy – or the lack of a real one outside the narco-economy in Helmand, and in much of Afghanistan. There is scope for ‘re-construction’ in Helmand, as largely thanks to U.S. efforts in the field of irrigation and agriculture decades ago there is something to build on, albeit a somewhat shattered base that was never completed and brought to fruition. Much of what needs to be done is ‘development’, however, and the significance of poverty and its relationship to the rest of the ‘problem’ is usually obvious, if not always simple.

What follows does not purport to be a complete account of what has occurred, let alone to have all the answers, or even to list every relevant question, but is an attempt after a year spent in the Province and some earlier experience of Afghanistan to identify some elements of what has gone wrong and why; to warn of some things that are still being mismanaged and badly misunderstood; and to make some suggestions as to what needs to be done if there is to be any chance of success.

The Taleban and security in Southern Afghanistan:

Before the deployment of British troops there was relatively little evidence of overt or organised Taleban activity in much of Helmand. This is not to say that the British presence has itself created the problem or strengthened the Taleban, although all too often the nature and activities of some Afghan government ‘officials’, and more especially of much of the Afghan National Police (ANP), have done both. The US PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Lashkar Gah that preceded the far larger British presence was too small to provoke a large-scale and violent Taleban response, and although also too small to achieve a great deal other than to act as an exploratory and isolated outpost, was perhaps in some respects better organised and more effective, especially in its attempts to learn about the structure and nature of Helmand, than its successors.

One significant error was made when setting up the original US PRT however: the base in Lashkar Gah was sited on land near the edge of the town recommended by the then Governor, Mullah Sher Mohammed Akhundzada (it subsequently seemed to emerge that he and his family owned it!), which is easily overlooked by surrounding buildings and has bad routes (in terms of road surface and of security) to the Government buildings in the centre of town. For some reason it was a USAID official who argued against this, and not a military man as one might have expected. The town’s rough airstrip was therefore left isolated and insecure, rather than being the site of and an integral part of the PRT, even though it is rather closer to the Government area with a much wider, more direct, and better road to it. This has left the PRT and the provincial capital more cut off from each other and the outside world than should be the case and with unnecessary extra logistic and security problems. Although consideration was later given to moving the base, by then too much had been poured into the original site. The loss of an RAF Hercules C-130 to an explosion was one of the more obvious side effects; other incidents have also occurred at this insecure airstrip.

Significantly, however, the Afghan government itself and its ‘security forces’ had little real effective strength in most of the Province either, and had very little even nominal presence in the mountainous and desert districts in the north and the south, away from Lashkar Gah, Gereshk, and the main Afghan ring road. Given both the historical and the contemporary weakness of the Afghan government, in rural areas in particular, this was neither surprising nor altogether a bad thing, in view of the quality of officials and forces that it was usually represented by. The Provincial Governor and Chief of Police before British influence had its initial (and beneficial) impact were both ‘narco-criminals’ who used their positions and the network of official corruption to advance their own and their allies’ interests and to attempt to eliminate or weaken their rivals in continuation of their earlier activities. To such people any idea of official or public responsibility would have been a pathetic joke. This was not just a matter of ‘traditional’ tribal loyalties, although these of course had some significance (usually more complex than simple tribal identity), so much as of vicious criminality for which ‘warlordism’ seems too romantic sounding a name; ‘drug-thuggery’ is perhaps a more down to earth description. The ‘Afghan National Police’ in southern Afghanistan were largely licensed and officially condoned bandits whose real allegiances usually overlapped with those of various other bands of criminals and thugs. It must not be forgotten, of course, that there have been and are honourable exceptions to this in the ANP, but in the past these were far too few to make a difference, and the above description, strongly worded as it may seem, was unfortunately all too accurate, and was the perception not just of ‘naïve’ outsiders but of the mass of the Afghan population.

Thus although there was relatively little visible or known Taleban presence the potential for the Taleban to get a grip on the area was, or should have been, clear. The Taleban had after all originally emerged in Southern Afghanistan on the back of popular discontent with the rapacity, viciousness, and general oppressiveness of the rule of local ‘Warlords’. On top of an historical dislike of any Government interference, let alone of foreign interference, that most rural areas of Afghanistan share, the nature of the Afghan Government as so far revealed to the rural Pashtun population was hardly such as to inspire hope or confidence. All too often they could understandably regard ‘officials’ and the ‘police’ as merely rival gangsters using their positions and outside support to displace the local tribal variety (and even traditional chiefs and elders), and official and police involvement in narcotics did nothing to convince people that ‘counter-narcotics’, not exactly welcome in itself, was anything other than an imaginative ramification of their usual corrupt manoeuvering. In spite of all this the maniacal, sadistic, and perverted religious oppressiveness of the Taleban themselves was still fresh in many memories, and their resurgence was not generally welcomed on its own account, but could come to seem acceptable once other factors came into play.

Since then the facts that the Taleban have been able to pay impoverished tribesmen to be part-time or occasional fighters (often at a higher rate than the Government’s security forces), and that the Taleban have posed as the protectors of opium poppy farmers and their crops against the Government and the westerners, have naturally strengthened their position at least temporarily. The population in general, especially in rural areas, has so far been seriously disappointed in its hopes for visible and useful western aid, and in some cases may feel that it is suffering from both ‘sides’ more or less equally; the Taleban of course are far more brutal and thus effective in their means of coercion, and pathetic western ideas about redressing this imbalance through ‘PR’ methods only show how totally out of touch many of those involved are.

The Taleban have also since then become increasingly enmeshed with Helmand’s (and the rest of southern Afghanistan’s) narcotics network: as early as 2006 gangs of Baluchi smugglers were fighting with the Taleban in the south, in order to protect their mutual interest in keeping cross-border routes open. The Baluchis conveniently straddle the borders of Pakistani Baluchistan (itself a half Pashtun and rebellious, fairly lawless Province, like the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) itself), southern Afghanistan, and south-eastern Iran. They have a long history of banditry and smuggling and until recently their chief enemy in respect of the latter activity was the Iranian Government and its attempts to staunch the flow of narcotics into Iran, which has a major drugs problem as well as being a transit route. More recent Iranian involvement in Afghanistan is a complex and debatable matter; it goes against the grain for Shiite Iran, which has traditionally supported oppressed Shiite Afghan Hazaras, to help their Sunni Pashtun Taleban enemies, but the chance to strike at the USA and the ‘West’ on both its own main borders, or to help others to do so, seems to be irresistible. This Baluch element in the tribal equation has helped to keep the Taleban’s supply routes open (at least until the USMC (US Marines)’s recent drive southwards?), and ensured the flow of munitions and manpower, the latter an intermittent reinforcement of Pakistanis (both Pashtun and ‘Punjabis’), Arabs, and an interesting mix of other Asian Muslims. As well as becoming involved in cross border activities, the Taleban have recently not only been extracting ‘protection money’ but have apparently (in 2008) been taking a ‘tithe’ of the opium crop in areas that they control, as do the ‘warlords’/drug thugs do in theirs. This means that although their manpower losses have been severe the Taleban would appear to have more than adequate funds to re-arm and recruit ‘battlefield casualty replacements’ for continued operations, even though the nature of those operations has had to change.

The murky involvement of Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence organization) with the Taleban goes back to the very birth of the Taleban, of course, and although it is probably an exaggeration to say that the ISI created the Taleban they have continued to supply, attempt to control, and have links with them in differing ways ever since. This is a complex subject, as is the whole matter of the Pashtun border areas and the NWFP (& Baluchistan), and both require separate discussion; suffice it to say, therefore, that regardless of changes in Pakistan’s Government and official policies the ISI, or elements of it, have continued to play a significant if fluctuating role in Pashtun Afghanistan. The role of Madrassas in Karachi and elsewhere in Pakistan and beyond in providing support and manpower for the Taleban, and of elements in the Gulf Arab States in doing likewise, are similarly subjects worthy of separate consideration.

In spite of this most unpromising situation, the arrival of British forces and officials was not regarded as just yet another invasion. Many Afghans in Helmand, especially but not only the urban and more educated classes, were glad to see a strong outside influence that might bring some form of stability and security by dealing with the narco-bandits, police bandits, and ‘Talebandits’, and equally one that could sort out the corrupt, incompetent, and inadequate ‘Government’ structures themselves. ‘Foreign aid’ was in itself welcome to almost all, although to some the ‘foreign interference’ that went along with it was less palatable, and in some areas and among those who had most to lose by it, unacceptable.

It was therefore more than unfortunate that the initial deployment of British forces in Helmand was totally, and obviously, inadequate. It would have been inadequate if the Province had been a fairly orderly and law-abiding area that had just been through a brief war, and military duties were to consist largely of directing traffic and dealing with a few crowds of football hooligans. Given its known recent history of civil war, fundamentalist terror, narco-criminality, absence of any real form of Government, poverty, breakdown of even traditional tribal forms of law and order and society, and the traditionally often violent and always well armed and feud-ridden nature of Pashtun society, such a failure of planning and judgement verged on the criminally incompetent. A junior officer or competent NCO looking at a map of Helmand, never having been there, and made aware of its size, terrain, population, general history and background, and the absence of any effective indigenous government or security structures might be regarded as an idiot if he suggested sending a re-inforced battalion group, which was in effect what was initially sent. Although nominally a Brigade, with a Headquarters and many of the ‘odds and ends’ that go with it, the infantry strength on the ground was neither sufficient to impress the population and overawe the Taleban nor even to defend itself effectively once deployed outside four or five (at the most) static and defensive locations, should this become necessary. Even sufficient air support (especially helicopters) to help compensate for this weakness was lacking. A re-inforced Brigade group with ample support might have done the job originally, with a bit of luck. Now that is roughly what is present on the ground the situation has spiralled out of control, the Taleban have learnt from their early setbacks (some of which were nearly successes), altered and refined their tactics, gained confidence and the support or cowed acquiescence of enough of the population, and themselves re-inforced and re-organized; and a full Brigade has itself proved incapable of doing much more than maintaining a largely defensive status quo (thus the USMC [US Marines] stepping in to take over offensive operations around Garamseir and the rest of southern Helmand towards the border with Pakistani Baluchistan). What happens when the USMC pull out remains to be seen.

This fatal weakness in troop numbers was compounded in the early months by a divided (and absurdly top-heavy) Headquarters, split between Helmand and Kandahar, even though few British troops other than air force and logistic support elements were based in the adjacent province. This seems to have been done for no good reason other than rather silly international military-political posturing (or so I was told by those who seemed to know), and was fortunately soon rectified by the first Brigadier in command. It should be stressed that there is no reason to blame the British military commanders in the field for the above shortcomings; they have as usual done their best given the situation that they have been presented with. Those in Whitehall however, political, civilian, and military, who were responsible for these woefully inept initial plans and unprofessional decisions should at least feel some shame for their part in what, without a lot of luck and the steadfastness and professionalism of the troops on the ground, could easily have been a tragic disaster. As it is, these early failures may have fatally undermined our chances of success in Helmand. Unfortunately moral cowardice, self-delusion, and public dishonesty are even more prevalent in the modern British ‘Establishment’ than ignorance, arrogance, and incompetence, so the self-congratulation and awards will doubtless continue to flow!

It seems that senior staff officers in the Ministry of Defence and the Chiefs of Staff themselves were unable or unwilling to confront the Government and the civil service over the provision of totally inadequate forces and support for what seems to have been an ill thought out and confused mission in the first place. The political and civil service appreciation of the situation seems to have been shallow and naïve, although there is little excuse for British ignorance of Afghanistan (the India Office Library and records still sit in London, and our own involvement on the Frontier with Pashtun tribesmen is only just beginning to fade from living memory). This failure to do any research in depth, or to even attempt to grasp the complexity of a situation, is sadly all too typical of the image obsessed, unsubstantial, self-centred nature of modern British politics and governance, and one can only hope that it is not to be the future of the Armed Forces as well. There is nothing very ‘modern’ about southern Afghanistan, but all too many in ‘Blair’s Britain’ seem to have thought that a slick P.R. operation could do the trick there as well. Several officers were heard to say that of course troop strengths were ridiculously low, but that it was hoped that this would become obvious to those in London in the course of operations and that more would then be sent. Others, more pessimistic, said that nothing would really intrude on thinking in Whitehall and Westminster and shake them out of military parsimony and foreign policy fantasy except a disaster overseas serious enough to have domestic political repercussions.

The glaring inadequacy of British troop numbers was first exposed when deployment of troops away from Camp Bastion (near Gereshk), Lashkar Gah (the Provincial capital), and another base near Sangin took place. The new Governor, Daoud, who had been put in with British backing, was not a military man at all, although held responsible in Kabul for the security of his Province. He naturally wished to extend his control and the effective influence of the Afghan Government beyond the towns of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, and having been told that a ‘brigade’ was coming to his province wanted its help to move into District Centres that were not in Government hands, and were at best ‘no man’s land’ if not actually under a form of Taleban control. The fact that the small bases set up in District Centres such as Musa Qala and Naw Zad were known as ‘Platoon Houses’ in itself shows the weakness of the positions that the British Army held; but if they had merely stayed in two or three main towns and bases the point of their being in Helmand at all would have been questionable. If these bases had been occupied by re-inforced Company groups they might have been able to defend themselves easily enough and to mount reconnaisances and aggressive patrol operations; as it was they proved barely able to defend themselves against fierce waves of attacks as the Taleban gathered strength unhindered in the surrounding districts.

In the absence of sufficient Royal Air Force support they were only able to exist because of the extra air power fortunately available from our U.S. allies; this situation of relying largely on U.S. aerial firepower was to remain unchanged in the months to come. The only reason that ‘friendly fire’ has involved US rather than British aircraft is that they have provided the bulk of the close air support that has often been urgently needed and has saved many British lives, and US aircraft have done so very effectively. The tragic incidents that occur in the heat of battle can occur regardless of who is flying and who is calling in the air strikes, as British troops on the ground are well aware.

The ‘Musa Qala Agreement’- What really happened:

The consequences of the military and political short-sightedness in Britain that sent under-equipped troops in such small numbers to carry out such a major task in an area of difficult terrain nearly two-thirds the size of England rapidly became clear. The sudden emergence of strong Taleban forces as a serious threat (although it should perhaps not have been totally unexpected) to the very survival of the isolated British outposts that had been rather over-optimistically set up in response to Governor Daoud’s wish for some signs of progress meant that it was impossible to continue to support and supply them by air whilst they remained under steady Taleban attack. These attacks on occasion threatened to overwhelm the outposts, in particular at Musa Qala, in spite of the frequent and heavy close air support that was called in to stave off a suicidal but effective Taleban onslaught.

Confronted with an imminent British withdrawal that would have pulled out the small ANP detachment in Musa Qala along with the British troops, but not their families, the Governor asked for a brief delay so as to find some way of mitigating what would be at best a serious loss of face for the Afghan Government and for himself personally. To abandon the first District Centre in Helmand that had been ‘reoccupied’ by or on behalf of the Afghan Government was clearly at the very least a propaganda defeat. The Musa Qala Agreement basically entrusted the Government of the town and District to tribal Elders who were meant to enforce law and order on behalf of the Afghan Government and under its flag, and to maintain security, exclude armed Taleban and foreign ‘militants’, support education, assist with reconstruction and development, and even to collect and spend taxes and electricity tariffs locally. Although only mentioned indirectly, in that they were to arrange safe passage for Government and allied forces out of the District, a withdrawal of British and Afghan forces from the area was implicit and actually the key part of the ‘Agreement’, even though alluded to rather than specified (a copy is attached below as an appendix). It quickly became apparent to those with eyes to see and ears to hear who had not realised how worthless the ‘Agreement’ was from the outset that it was not worth the paper it was written on. A sad indication that the verbal atrocities of New Labour spin-doctors have infected even the Army in the field was that Staff Officers insisted that the pull out was described as being a ‘re-balancing’, not a retreat or withdrawal! Perhaps this would have comforted Napoleon on the way back from Moscow or Churchill after Dunkirk.

The ‘Musa Qala Agreement’ was thus in effect forced on the Governor by a realistic re-appraisal of the military situation by British commanders, and was at best concluded to make the best of a bad job, and as a face-saving exercise at the least. Although the whole affair was forced on the Governor and the British military commanders by circumstances beyond their control, that flowed directly from the British Government’s failure to provide adequate troops for the operation in Helmand, it was promptly trumpeted by some British military and civilian elements as a master-stroke of policy and as being ‘the way forward’, an ‘Afghan led’ initiative, and other absurd epithets more suited to second rate P.R. consultants than professional officers or officials. Bizarrely some were so carried away by the perverse exuberance of their own twisted verbosity that they continued to talk of replicating the Musa Qala agreement elsewhere in Helmand and the rest of Afghanistan long after it had been exposed for what it was, and recognised as a failure. Although the United States maintained a publicly diplomatic approach to the whole sad affair the Americans were all too aware of the reality of the situation and its uncomfortable similarity to the (then) recent agreements made by the Pakistani Government in Waziristan. These had been condemned by the US and by most thinking British officials as totally ineffective in their stated aims of handing over power to local ‘Elders’ on the basis that they would exclude the Taleban (and Al Qaeda in the case of Waziristan), and withdrawing security forces in order to avoid local confrontations. At the time of writing (June 2008) similar concerns are of course being expressed by the Afghan, US, and British Governments in relation to the new Pakistani Government’s attempts to do deals with the ‘Pakistani Taleban’ in Frontier areas so as to avert attacks in Pakistan itself, regardless of the implications for Taleban/Al Qaeda activities in Afghanistan, which could then continue unhindered with a relatively safe ‘rear area’ in NW Pakistan.

In the case of the Musa Qala agreement the consequences also became clear all too soon to those who did not blindly ignore them (as many did). The Taleban gradually reasserted control, increasingly openly - and bloodily, whenever it suited them. The whole episode was soon perceived by most of the population of Helmand as a whole as a humiliation for or at least a sign of the weakness of both the British and the Afghan Government, especially for the unfortunate Governor Daoud. Although the previous Governor, Mullah Sher Mohammed Akhundzada (MSM), no longer had any official position, his brother Amir Mohammed Akhundzada (AMA) was Deputy Governor of Helmand, and the previous Chief of Police, Abdul Rahman Jan (ARJ) (who had been quietly moved to a position in Kabul), both maintained their strong and malevolent influence in the Province, and they and their many local allies were able to use the Musa Qala Agreement and its failure as an argument for the removal of Daoud – which they hoped would lead to MSM’s reinstatement. Their outrage at the Taleban taking control of Musa Qala was not entirely assumed, however; MSM and AMA were genuinely concerned not of course at the loss of Government and British control in the area but that the loss of their own local grip to rivals, particularly in terms of the narcotics business. They were unfortunately and accidentally aided by the sincere but misguided discontent among many in Helmand who were really worried by the Taleban resurgence and its growing hold over Musa Qala and adjacent areas. This was in time to lead to the removal of Daoud by President Karzai, who belatedly realised that his own credibility and that of his government as a whole was being undermined as well as his Provincial Governor’s – even though Karzai had originally agreed to and supported the ‘Agreement’. Typically, Daoud’s British sponsors failed to back him, even though it was their own military deficiencies that had led to his downfall. Whatever his own limitations, Daoud’s removal was undoubtedly a serious setback to progress in Helmand; his successor was to prove largely useless.

It is particularly strange to note that the spirit of self-congratulation in some British circles is so strong that long after not only the visible failure of the Musa Qala Agreement but after the successful mounting of a large scale operation to ‘retake’ Musa Qala, many seem unable to stop describing it as a success. Although the propaganda put out rejoiced in the fact that it was ‘an Afghan agreement’ and that this was its strength, recent (Daily Telegraph) journalistic writing has (unfairly!) attributed this ‘success’ to General Richards, the ISAF Commander in Kabul at the time. I have also recently heard him congratulated in London on ‘his Musa Qala Agreement’! Unless I am very much mistaken the General had not even been in the Province at the time and had nothing to do with Daoud’s negotiations – and nor did the British in Helmand itself. This can be demonstrated by the fact that although some British Officers and officials in Helmand shamelessly ‘talked up’ the whole thing (contradictorily claiming it as their own as well as being an independent Afghan initiative), when asked for the details of the Agreement and by whom it was actually signed they proved entirely ignorant, and relapsed into an embarrassed silence! Contacts of mine then obtained and translated a copy which I handed to Brigade HQ and the FCO, and other interested parties (US & allied). As far as I can tell this was the first time that anyone British had even set eyes on the document itself.

British tactics and the use of local forces in Helmand:

One of the most damaging results of having insufficient ground forces has been an excessive dependence on air power. This has resulted in British (and other allied troops in southern Afghanistan) calling in air strikes in most instances whenever in prolonged contact with the enemy, as being the only way to defeat them without having superiority on the ground; or perhaps, understandably, without incurring possibly heavy casualties. The Taleban certainly seem to have realised how to turn this to their advantage by taking up positions in occupied houses and compounds (regardless of the wishes of the inhabitants), often vacating them before coming under air attack and leaving the hapless civilians to their fate. This has inevitably resulted in quite heavy civilian casualties, probably in at least some cases unnecessarily, which quite apart from any questions of morality involved have helped to turn much of the local population concerned against us. Thus this ‘collateral damage’ is not just to buildings and in terms of civilian lives lost, but to the reputation of the British forces and the Afghan government, both of which have lost support as a result. Since ‘winning hearts and minds’ is as central to what we are trying to achieve in Helmand as to most counter-insurgency operations, this should have been taken into account rather more, and rather earlier. Most Afghan civilians are remarkably tolerant of accidental civilian casualties in understandable circumstances, but the limits of this tolerance were stretched and broken, and although public anger was mainly expressed at President Karzai and his government rather than directly at British forces the implications are obvious. A perception grew in many quarters that while most unnecessary shootings of drivers and pedestrians were unavoidable and sometimes the fault of the victims themselves at least some air strikes were mounted with callous indifference to the consequences for innocent civilians. Most such incidents occurred in remote rural areas, where the population may have been hostile or ambivalent anyhow, but they have also occurred in places like Gereshk, and have killed known government supporters and even employees. These incidents took place more often in 2006-07 than recently; the Taleban’s all too sensible tendency to attack more often now by using roadside bombs and mines rather than with ambushes and other forms of small arms fire has probably lessened their frequency, more than any deliberate change of tactics or policy.

Although troops on the ground must be all too aware of what is involved, some staff officers have been remarkably insensitive to these implications of the use of air power. Most however, are not, and I have more than once heard the saying that ‘we are getting more like the Americans and they are getting more like us’; referring not only to the use of air support but to matters military and about Afghanistan in general. Certainly it seems to me that the Americans are now much more prone to serious analysis and questioning of policy, and to try and find out about the local population and situation for themselves, at least at lower levels; and ‘higher up’ are more likely to listen to reports from ground level, rather than blithely applying whatever irrelevant civil and military policies distant and ignorant political or bureaucratic masters or ‘experts’ have imposed. Whilst the sophistication and effectiveness of modern military technology is to be welcomed, and can often be invaluable, it is not enough on its own and can seriously distort perceptions of local, civilian, reality.

Afghan ‘police’ forces:

Another way in which our operations have damaged British forces and the Afghan government itself in the eyes of the local population is the use of local ‘police’ forces. Once again, a shortage of British (or allied) troops has often been the reason for the employment of these with predictable results. The character of the ‘Afghan National Police’ in southern Afghanistan has already been mentioned above; it is well known to those who have seen them ‘in action’ and listened to Afghans complaining about it unceasingly. Although largely local, it has none of the useful police characteristics of local knowledge and understanding, only negative ones. Most of them are not really meant to be a police force in the modern western sense in any case; they are more a local internal security force, and so should be organised more on the lines of colonial or paramilitary police forces than as an English constabulary.

The error of working with the ANP as it stands was compounded by the decision to raise ‘Afghan National Auxiliary Police’ (ANAP) to plug the gap in security manpower. These were meant to be a local security ‘militia’; unfortunately the term ‘militia’ has negative connotations in Afghanistan for very good reasons. Indeed the disarming and disbanding of Afghan ‘militias’ was meant to be one of the aims of the ‘DDR’ program that has been rather dishonestly claimed as a success in Afghanistan; in spite of the best efforts of those involved it had little or no impact in some parts of the country where it was needed most and was ended prematurely. The ANAP as it happened deserved the title ‘militia’ with its Afghan meaning; they were not to be on the lines of the Frontier Scouts Regiments raised from local tribes on the frontier of British India (and still maintained in modern Pakistan) – this is an idea that has been put forward and might have some potential if carefully handled, although such units had their own tribal and other problems on occasion even with a handful of British officers in charge. Instead the ANAP were largely disreputable gangs of men sent in by local ‘leaders’ in various districts from among their own followers for very brief training, from which they returned freshly armed and in police uniforms to oppress their localities anew with official sanction. The American Police Trainers who were put in the unfortunate position of having to deal with the ANAP were in no doubt that they should not be having anything to do with them. Some of the ‘recruits’ were on drugs; many were physically disabled or unfit for duty through age or for some other reason, and even having weeded out the worst cases it became clear that on return to their districts the weapons and uniforms would be re-distributed to others to suit the wishes of their ‘leaders’ – this has happened with the ‘regular’ ANP as well.

The ANP themselves were renowned for robbery of and assaults on innocent civilians, as well as for looting, regular extortion, and occasional murders and rapes – they were only ‘modern’ in that the latter were ‘gender neutral’. Drug use or addiction was not uncommon in the ANP either. The few good and well intentioned Officers in the ANP were unable to do much to change things, and were more likely to be punished by their seniors and by Government officials for their efforts than encouraged or rewarded. A few centrally trained ANP units existed that were notable for having a reasonable level of discipline, training, and at least military effectiveness, and although these were identified as such by local Afghans they were too few to alter the overall picture. The ANAP were if anything even worse, were even more likely to be under the control of local drug-thugs and other criminals, and were certainly not the tribal self-defence force under the control of benign tribal elders that some naively imagined that they would become. Many British Officers were well aware of the problem and that more than a ‘sticking-plaster’ approach was needed, and several raised this point; a Staff Officer however pontificated like a political commissar that “The line to take is that the ANP are not part of the problem; they have problems but these are being dealt with” (which of course they were not!) and dissension seems to have faded away or been stifled.

It was bad enough that British forces had to work with the existing ANP; however they were already in existence and were not our creation. The ‘ANAP’ were the result of a British initiative and so further discredited us directly, and not just the Afghan government itself. There has been a total failure to ‘grasp the nettle’ of Afghan Police reform. The sort of training courses and other efforts that have taken place so far – and I refer here specifically to southern Afghanistan, and cannot comment on the situation elsewhere – have been useless. The whole structure is so rotten that nothing other than a root and branch restructuring and retraining will achieve anything; many of its personnel should not be in government employment, let alone armed or in positions of authority, and they drag down the rest with them. A small number of civilian police are needed in the towns, but the majority will be used in a mainly military role for the foreseeable future, and to avoid corruption, tribalism, and control by local gangsters nearly all should be posted outside their home areas, as used to be the case with most colonial police forces and with the admirable Royal Irish Constabulary (this practice was even continued to some extent by the Royal Ulster Constabulary). Local knowledge and understanding can still be maintained by having long postings and a small number of personnel serving close to home, preferably after initial training and experience elsewhere. One of the reasons that the Afghan National Army is on the whole relatively well regarded and accepted by the Afghan population is that as well as being quite well trained and disciplined it is ‘non-local’ and has a tribal and ethnic mix that makes partiality and corruption much less likely. The naivety (or arrogance?) of many outsiders in this respect is exemplified by a Foreign Office official who responded to my queries about possible future recruiting and posting policy for the ANP by saying: ‘Oh no, they will all be recruited and serve in their home areas, just as it is in the UK’. Southern Afghanistan is very definitely not like the English Home Counties; or like anywhere else in Britain, Europe, or the USA, for that matter. Presumably the same person, untainted by much experience of Afghanistan beyond the wall of the PRT, would have thought that the ANAP were something like Community Support Officers in London.

All too often after successful British (and allied) operations to clear an area of the Taleban (which have sometimes been initially greeted with relief by the locals) the ANP have been moved into the area to hold and ‘police’ it and have rapidly turned the population against the government and its British allies. I am reliably informed that this is what is happening in Musa Qala, where the consequences could be crucial to the long term success or failure of operations in northern Helmand. In the south of the Province, it seems that although some ANA are being deployed too, the ANP are also being sent into the areas of Garamseir cleared of Taleban by the USMC; the outcome is likely to be the same there. Another related stupidly short-sighted approach has been to build ‘check-points’ to secure or defend an area and then man them with ANP. This unfortunately seems to fulfil a bureaucratic imperative to have immediate ‘development’ in the wake of offensive military operations; being buildings check-points counted as ‘development’ projects and their construction would ‘tick the box’ quickly and spend appropriate funds, which was in itself apparently regarded as a success. This went ahead in spite of warnings and local pleas; notably around the town of Gereshk where even pro-government people stated that although they wanted protection against the Taleban they would rather have no defences built than have them manned by the ANP; if manned by Afghan National Army (ANA) or western troops they would of course be welcome. The result was that the check-points went ahead there and elsewhere as planned and local people had to walk for miles to avoid them to escape harassment and theft, or worse. There is a danger that this mistake is being repeated around Musa Qala and Garamseir.

British association with the ANA, on the other hand, has been constructive, if often frustrating to those involved, and slow to produce results. Not only has British (and other foreign assistance) helped with training and effectiveness in the field (in the form of ‘OMLTs’ – the British equivalent of the US ‘Embedded Training Teams’) but it enables the ANA to call in air support when necessary, and also to obtain helicopter ‘CASEVAC’ and thus British Army medical treatment of casualties, which they would otherwise usually be denied. Working with the ANA, imperfect and under strength though they may be at present, and increasing the numbers of British Officers and NCOs attached to them seems to be the best hope for the future.

Unfortunately the build up of the British forces themselves has come too late and too slowly to have a dramatic impact; the Taleban have refined and adapted their tactics to take into account British and allied strengths and their own extremely heavy losses in the early days, and this along with their alliance with narcotics interests, notably with the Baluchi smugglers in the Afghan/Pakistani/Iranian border areas, makes it likely that they can sit things out for a long time unless the Afghan government and their allies find some way of taking the initiative. The bulk of the rural population remains at best suspicious of the Afghan government and of its western allies, and has so far seen little to change its mind, even if the Taleban have little unconditional support either. In spite of having suffered heavy casualties and from serious individual leadership losses such as that of Mullah Dadullah, as well as from internal and local dissension, they are far from defeated and it seems premature and unwise in the extreme for British commanders and politicians to talk in terms of having beaten the Taleban, as many have been tempted to do recently. This may impress the more sycophantic and less intelligent among the ‘media’ people, some of whom seem eager to repeat rather shallow official statements that are little more than bad propaganda, and some of the British public, but can only cause hollow laughter at best among troops on the ground, and makes us all look like fools to Afghans. British and American commanders are generally quite aware that ‘body-counts’ in themselves do not constitute victory in this sort of operation, and can even back-fire both locally and ‘at home’. Like others in such situations, the Taleban do not have to defeat the British but merely to continue to exist and operate until the British give up and go away; after that the Afghan government in its present state would be likely to fall all too easily. The way the Taleban are generally operating now in southern Afghanistan (roadside and suicide bombs and mines) will not bring them any spectacular successes against the British or even against Afghan forces, which they might have hoped to achieve in spite of their losses in the days of bloody head on attacks and ambushes, but a steady, wearying campaign of guerrilla attrition and terrorism may prove more difficult to deal with and just as effective in eroding British willingness to continue in the long run. To claim that your enemy’s belated adoption of more effective, more appropriate, less costly tactics that you have more difficulty in countering is a sign that you have defeated them is a childishly perverse and stupid reaction that makes one question such people’s fitness for office or for command. It is also convenient for some that many of the munitions used by the Taleban and others in the region are old Soviet types; thus when an incident occurs involving such munitions it can be discounted as what is rather bizarrely termed a ‘legacy’ mine. It is of course impossible to tell after detonation whether an old mine has simply been left there undiscovered for years, has been dug up and reused by the Taleban, or is just ‘old stock’.

What is to be done?

Greater support for the ANA and assistance in building up their capabilities must clearly be a priority, so that the Afghan Government is not, and is not seen by Afghans to be, totally dependent on foreign military forces; this is also likely to be a quicker and easier policy than the complex business of reforming the ANP, which has so far been grossly mishandled. Greater emphasis on ‘OMLTs’ (the British equivalent of the US ‘Embedded Training Teams’, with an operational mentoring and assistance role) is not only an effective use of resources (a ‘force multiplier’, in modern jargon) but should be politically attractive to all concerned as a way of gradually ‘Afghanising’ operations more, and will also help, eventually, to smooth a gradual transition from foreign to Afghan predominance in security matters.

In the meantime more foreign infantry, although not a solution on their own, are still needed, although given successive British governments dismemberment of the armed forces, and the Blair/Brown’s government’s reduction of the number of infantry battalions at a time when the need for them has very obviously not been greater than ever in recent times, it is difficult to see where they could come from. The incredibly short-sighted reduction of the Brigade of Gurkhas to a two and a bit battalion Regiment over the last ten years or so now seems especially foolish; an increase in its strength to four two battalion Regiments would have been more appropriate. Both in Afghanistan and in the Middle East Gurkha troops also have some particular advantages, worthy of separate discussion. The British Government, and the whole current generation of British ‘leaders’, sadly seem to lack the imagination and determination necessary to make proper use of these. Most of our ‘allies’ except the USA are little use in terms of fighting troops, although it should of course be remembered that the Australians and especially the Canadians have certainly done their bit in southern Afghanistan alongside several of the ‘minor’ European nations (notably Denmark, Estonia, the Netherlands, Poland) all of which should be applauded. A withdrawal of the USMC from southern Helmand will once again create a vacuum that the Afghan security forces are unlikely to be able to fill without support. The British announcement in the wake of President Bush’s farewell visit to London of a slight increase in the numbers of troops seems to be largely a ‘re-balancing’ (in the true sense of the word!) of some of the types of personnel involved, which although probably welcome and long overdue is likely to prove as much cosmetic as effective in its impact, on its own.

The tinkering around with the ANP that has taken place so far has been unsuccessful at best; the British and American Police Trainers and Advisers have been able to achieve little, given the situation and the restrictions imposed on them on the one hand and the nature of the organization and most of the personnel that they are meant to work with on the other. The introduction of EU civil police trainers and advisers can only be a sad but far from funny joke as far as southern Afghanistan is concerned. Police trainers and advisers should generally not come from ‘ordinary’ western civil police backgrounds, except where some specialist skill is involved, but from paramilitary police forces and others with relevant anti-terrorist, ‘colonial’, or ‘third world’ experience. Some former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the British South Africa Police (of Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, not the South African Police!), the French Gendarmerie, etc., as well as some military personnel, might therefore be regarded as more suitable in this respect than those with otherwise professional but inappropriate police backgrounds. Most of the ANP in southern Afghanistan is not involved in ordinary civil policing, and will not be for some time. One short term approach after another does not constitute a long term approach!

A ‘root and branch’ reform and restructuring of the ANP is required, however difficult this is to carry out whilst engaged in continuous operations, with appropriate Police and Military training teams and operational advisers ‘on the ground’. This will need to involve the ‘weeding out’ of significant numbers of existing personnel at all levels, in order to give the remaining decent members a chance to perform effectively and decently, and will also require fresh recruitment from all over Afghanistan and from a cross-section of tribal and ethnic groups of untainted personnel who will actually and visibly represent a fresh start. Inevitably there would be a risk that some of those discharged would try and continue or expand their criminal activities or even join the insurgency. Although this would be politically difficult and might be potentially dangerous domestically for the Afghan Government it is a ‘nettle that must be grasped’. The details of police manning and posting will be a complex affair if local and tribal impartiality and professional integrity are to be achieved simultaneously with the maintenance of local knowledge and understanding (and linguistic competence).

Along with wholesale re-training and continuing ‘mentoring’ a realistic review of the command structure and pay of the ANP is necessary. Although better pay is a necessary condition for the raising of Afghan police standards, it is not in itself a sufficient measure to change things, as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the world when dealing with corrupt, oppressive, and inefficient police forces. It might be worth considering a change of uniform for new and ‘re-habilitated’ Afghan police so as to make a visible distinction between new and old, although even this would need to be done with care.

There may also possibly be a case for some form of paramilitary units (‘Tribal Scouts’ attached to British, other foreign, and ANA units? Or khassadars’ – tribal levies?) at local or provincial level, but very definitely not based on the ANAP, as referred to above with reference to the British-Indian/Pakistani ‘Frontier Scouts’ units. A tribal structure in such cases would have to be countered by a small but strong element of external command and control to avoid following the unfortunate precedent of the ANAP, and it would be better not to go in for this at all rather than to experiment half-heartedly without adequate consideration of the many risks and various factors involved.

The use of ‘Pseudo-gangs’ and ‘turned terrorists’ should perhaps also be considered in some circumstances (as by the Kenya Regiment and Police and others against the Mau-Mau and by the Selous Scouts and BSAP Special Branch in Rhodesia). Although politically contentious and requiring considerable thought and planning to be useful rather than counter-productive, such operations can be remarkably effective if properly managed. Some other tactics from those wars and Malaya, such as ‘New’ or ‘Protected’ Villages are unlikely to be worth attempting in Afghan conditions!

As far as British (and other) forces are concerned an increase in helicopter support is clearly necessary to make more effective tactical use of the troops available, as well as for ‘safer’ transport of man-power and supplies, always bearing in mind that Soviet dependence on air power and movement became their ‘Achilles’ heel’ when western aid provided effective anti-aircraft weapons to the ‘Mujaheddin’! In the end, however, only the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ can do the job on the ground. A shortage of strategic air transport, and especially of Hercules C-130 type aircraft, is also a matter of some concern.

Given that road movement and vehicle mounted patrols will always be necessary given the size of Helmand (although foot patrols are usually more effective tactically and psychologically - and often actually safer overall), equally important is a continued, if again belated, improvement in the quality and quantity of armoured vehicles available to British troops. The Mastiff and the Viking have been welcome; such equipment does not even have to be expensive: the Rhodesian forces produced excellent ‘mine-proofed’ and ‘anti-ambush’ vehicles over thirty years ago with virtually no ‘resources’ in terms of money or ‘high-tech’ materials, but with plenty of simple ingenuity. These sometimes stood up to double-planted anti-tank mines, of the same old Soviet types that are still often utilised by the Taleban today. The Rhodesian forces suffered no fatal casualties from mine blasts in protected vehicles in which the passengers were strapped in! Many of these designs would serve British forces better than the pitifully inadequate ‘Snatch’ Land Rovers, which are hardly any better than the totally inadequate ‘armoured’ Land Rovers that failed to protect their occupants many times in Ulster – and would cost very little more. I have seen a report of the (British) Ministry of Defence introducing a vehicle called the ‘Ridgeback’, but know no details. This may be a step in the right direction; perhaps for once ‘lessons have been learnt’; the name in itself sounds promising!

A significant difference between the British and the Americans at present is that while the British, both as units and as military and civilian individuals, generally do a six month tour of duty, the Americans do a year or longer (with considerably less ‘R & R’ out of the country in the course of it). Although it will understandably be claimed that adopting American practice in this respect will put even more strain on long suffering families in the UK, there can be no doubt that logistically and in terms of efficient use of manpower the British system is wasteful (training and preparation time is much the same for a six month tour as for a year) and disruptive of planning and deployments in general. In the early days of British deployment a crucial rifle company’s worth of manpower was out of circulation for most of the time due to ‘R & R’ and related movements alone. The main significance of all this, however, is that in the course of a year foreign troops (and civilians) can actually gain a useful knowledge of the area and the people that they are operating among, and hope to achieve something and even be able to see some results. In spite of recording and computerization of information and the best efforts of those involved, a huge amount of local knowledge and expertise, and understanding of local groups and personalities, is lost whenever outgoing personnel hand over to their replacements. This is the case with Intelligence and operations staffs, if anything even more than with the troops on the ground; handover/takeover periods are usually far too short as well. ‘Trickle posting’ of most Brigade and other HQ and base personnel rather than block changeovers would probably be operationally advantageous. Those of us who were ‘native officers’ in Northern Ireland can understand all too well the frustration felt by local security forces and other local personnel at the all too rapid changeover of outside personnel, resulting in everything having to be learnt all over again and started from scratch; the wheel is re-invented every six months – and it is not even always the same shape!

Although modern technology is being made good use of, and is a huge advantage, there is also a great need for considerably more ‘human intelligence’ and general background information gathering in the south, and of finding some way to work more closely and effectively with Afghans in this respect. Once again this can only really be done by more thoughtful and longer term planning and by longer deployments of military and civilian personnel. H.I.G. (Hizb Islami Gulbeddin [Hekmatyar] ) also need to be kept in mind as a potential threat, as although Helmand is well away from this dangerous and vicious leader’s original area of operations, there have been rumours of some influential individuals in the Province having links with his organization. Hekmatyar is for the time being in some sort of alliance with the Taleban, and also received strong ISI backing in the past, but in any case should be regarded as a significant threat to the stability and government of Afghanistan as long as he is at large.

In broader terms, there will of course be no purely military solution, or even a permanent

defeat of the Taleban in simple battlefield terms; the matters of ‘Governance’, narcotics, and general economic development are even more complex and difficult but must be grappled with if the military effort is to be at all worthwhile and to have lasting results.

This is not to say that military efforts are secondary, for none of the other aspects of the problem can be dealt with either unless there is continuing operational activity and a large degree of success by the security forces.

It is tedious to continually listen to the large numbers of people who insist on saying knowingly, with only a shallow understanding of history and of present circumstances, that we have been in Afghanistan before, and so have the Russians more recently, and that no one has ever succeeded and that no one ever will. The present US, British, and allied intervention is not meant to be the same as previous foreign ‘adventures’ in Afghanistan, in intention or in terms of local conditions, although there is certainly all too much to be learnt from them. A happier and more encouraging precedent would be with the twelve year ‘Emergency’ in Malaya (1948-1960), different in many important respects though that undoubtedly was. Malaya is an example that it has become fashionable to refer to in Counter-Insurgency circles, but many who do so do not seem to have studied it in enough detail to have learnt the political, police, and military lessons that emerged from it. Some aspects of the anti-Communist Civil War campaign in Greece from 1944 to 1949 also provide a few interesting examples for comparison, although not exact ones either, it must be admitted.

It is also all too often the case that in British military and civilian circles it is stated that we are only in Afghanistan to stop it becoming a base for international (Al-Qaeda) terrorism again, and/or because of the flood of heroin reaching Britain and Europe from there (although British military, and some government civilian, attitudes to counter-narcotics have been dangerously confused in the past). Any approach that is made only from this simplistic standpoint is doomed to fail even in its own narrow terms. Afghans deserve, and need, a functioning economy of some sort and a government and a police force (supported by an Army) that are capable of commanding respect and of taking the lead in counter-terrorism; without these nothing can be achieved in the long term.

Outside military force can only be a temporary stop-gap, although it is a vital one, and should not be seen as anything else.

The battle against the Taleban is very definitely far from won in any of the several ways that it will have to be, but it is not yet lost either. There is however a very real danger that it will be unless the military as well as the other aspects are treated considerably more seriously, and sensitively. ‘PR tactics’ of saying that ‘we are winning’, ‘the Taleban are beaten’, and so forth that seem popular with politicians and with some commanders simply will not do. It seems that there is little that Britain can achieve any more in southern Iraq after the sad fiasco of our involvement there. In Afghanistan this is not yet the case; but any idea that we can cut and run there and ‘hand over to Afghans’ (in a military sense) in the short term is criminal self-delusion. The Taleban would be the winners and ordinary Afghans the losers; it is therefore very worrying that some in Britain (mainly ‘the usual suspects’, who have a record of this sort of thing) are already talking glibly about ‘exit strategies’ and ‘talking to the Taleban’. Although some of those involved with the Taleban can be detached from them by various means there is nothing whatsoever to talk to the Taleban as an organization about, unless it is going to lead their return to power. People who talk about ‘power-sharing’ with the Taleban display an arrogant ignorance of the whole nature of the situation. There is no such thing as a ‘moderate wing’ of the Taleban; there are many working and fighting with them however who are not ideologically attached to their cause and will respond to financial and other inducements. The ill-informed should also resist the temptation to make shallow comparisons with Northern Ireland and its so-called ‘peace process’; we are dealing with a rather different calibre of bearded terrorist in Afghanistan, not just a much greater number.

Governance’ and corruption, ‘tribalism’ and democracy:

The prevalence of corruption, much of which is narcotics related but a great deal of which is of the ordinary low-level bureaucratic and nepotistic type, not only prevents effective government and makes a mockery of the ‘rule of law’ but deprives the Afghan government (and to some extent, by association, its western allies) of any real credibility amongst ordinary Afghans. The lack of any serious attempts to tackle corruption of all kinds is gradually draining away what little faith Afghans have in their own government both at central and at provincial levels. In many cases low pay contributes to the mentality that breeds corruption, along with a general lack of professionalism, motivation, resources, effective control structures, and an absence of loyalty to the state; but as mentioned above in relation to the ANP improvement in salaries will on its own make little or no difference to this state of affairs.

Along with financial corruption the presence at high levels in Afghan government structures of men with questionable pasts (to say the least – many can reasonably be regarded as war criminals!) or current involvement in narcotics or other criminal activities has undermined the whole government in Kabul in the eyes of much of the population. Some foreign observers like to portray this as a necessary and typically Afghan Machiavellian tactic, although it really just demonstrates the Government’s weak position, and have even suggested that the Government should abandon attempts at controlling ‘difficult’ areas and ‘do deals’ with more warlords to ‘control’ them instead. This attitude is not just offensively patronising towards Afghans, but if implemented would rapidly lead to the collapse of all Government into yet another period of anarchy and civil war. Many, from ministers down to low grade civil servants, have the sort of past record and present performance that puts them beyond redemption and need to be replaced by those that are willing and able to do their jobs; there are plenty of educated and able Afghans who would like a chance to try. This is especially the case with those who are not only professionally incompetent but known to be involved with narcotics or other unacceptable activities, whether they can be convicted of offences yet or not. The current state of law enforcement and the general maladministration of justice means that those who are best known and flout the law most openly are the least likely to be charged or punished, and although it goes against the grain to ignore ‘due process of law’ and to assume guilt before conviction in court, in this case justice requires a Gordian knot to be cut, rather than to be unravelled slowly and ineffectively. A judicial commission of some sort with external support might be used for this purpose, but something needs to be done.

Many of the most effective officials are those who have served under previous Afghan governments, usually therefore ‘communist’ ones, and this unfortunately means that they are rather ‘politically incorrect’ in Afghan terms compared to people who had a more colourful but professionally irrelevant background with the Mujahedin. Other able and educated Afghans may suffer from having spent much of their lives outside the country as exiles or as refugees so may themselves be in some ways out of touch with the harsh realities of rural Afghan life.

The absence of any real political parties or other political activity, and of any serious internal political discussion of policy, combined with the unholy alliances that still mark the Afghan government, make it difficult to see where the necessary drive for reform will come from.

Foreign aid and involvement of foreign personnel:

Although there has been considerable criticism of western aid being wasted by the hire of foreign consultants and huge expenditure on security, and these complaints are entirely valid, as long as so much of the Afghan government itself is so hopelessly corrupt and monumentally incompetent (there are of course many exceptions to this both among individuals and among some departments) it is pointless to advocate pouring money even more wastefully into most Afghan government organizations. As with the ANP, a radical approach to the Afghan civil service is required rather than the piecemeal ‘sticking plaster’ attempts to improve things that have been the rule so far. This would involve, initially at least, outside intervention in the civil service itself, with some executive authority, not merely advisory visits. All too often western officials have not been willing or able even to intervene to support the few Afghan officials (from Provincial Governors and senior Police Officers downwards) who have tried to do their jobs properly without fear or favour, and have stood by wringing their hands ineffectively while the very people they claim to be encouraging are moved or even punished rather than being promoted for their efforts.

Few western ‘experts’ or foreign civilian official advisers ever spend enough time working with Afghans, or even in Afghanistan, to really get to know the country and the people that they are dealing with, let alone to make a real difference. All too many are not really interested in doing either, and are merely doing their time in an exotic ‘conflict environment’ that will tick a useful box on their career plan at home, and are more intent on sticking to the right jargon and official policy framework and impressing each other than anything else. As always there are honourable exceptions to this generalization, but all too few. Unfortunately the only people who really need to be impressed, that is to say ordinary Afghans, are not impressed at all. Modern western ideas of perception and even illusion being more important than reality and of ‘spin’ being able to overcome any problem, and of manipulation being more effective than an understanding of and attempt to grapple with hard facts, are pathetically and dangerously out of place in Afghanistan, where ordinary people are confronted by all too stark realities, not competing marketing ploys.

To be effective at all, foreign government and other civilian staff working in Afghanistan need to stay for at least a year, preferably more, and to be willing to get out and work with their Afghan counterparts far more, regardless of risk. The whole risk-averse ‘health and safety’, duty of care, risk assessment, threat state analysis, obsessed mentality that certainly hamstrings efforts in Helmand is turning foreign intervention in governance and development into a farce, but not one that is remotely funny for its supposed Afghan beneficiaries to watch as they continue to suffer.

Those foreigners who are not willing or able to get out and try to actually achieve something by working with and among Afghans, and to accept the risks involved, would be better off getting out of Afghanistan altogether and playing their introverted self-important bureaucratic games at home at considerably less cost to their taxpayers. Westerners having endless rounds of meetings with other westerners inside secure defended bases, with occasional visits to or from a small selection of Afghans as their only direct source of real local information, may be able to delude themselves that they are playing an important role but are only wasting the money and lives of others who cannot live in smug cocoons. Most of them seem to be intent on trying to impress each other rather than the Afghans who really need to be impressed, and convinced.

Afghan Government structures:

The Afghan Government in Kabul has a range of ministries, which as well as their Kabul based Ministers and offices have Provincial departments, varying considerably in resources and effectiveness from one Province to another and from one Ministry to another. These work with but are not directly under the control of the Provincial Governor and his usually inadequate staff; depending on the individuals concerned and their relationships and professional competence, this rather ill-defined ‘dual control’ system can work quite well or very badly. ‘String-pulling’, muddle and intrigue can be the result rather than a clear cut system of command and control. The Provincial Governor for his part is held responsible for anything and everything in his Province; in theory at least this includes security even though he may well not have any military or police experience, and in Helmand and southern and eastern Afghanistan does not have command of the bulk of the effective forces in the province. The ability and integrity of Governors also varies hugely; Helmand has been fortunate for the second time in the case of the current Governor, but even the best Governors need support, as they have little direct control of resources and can be at the mercy of factors outside their control.

The Provincial Council:

Provincial Governors are appointed by the President in Kabul, but can have at least as much ‘legitimacy’ as the elected members of Parliament from their provinces, many of whom are rogues who do little other than advance their own interests. The democratic element of local government, in theory at least, is provided by an elected Provincial Council. As at national level a proportion of seats were reserved for women; without this it is doubtful if many, or any, women would have been elected, but in Helmand at least some of the women members are among the handful of able and impressive Provincial Councillors. Although elected the Provincial Council has no executive powers, and it depends very much on the individual Provincial Governor whether or not he consults its members or wishes to listen to their advice. They have no authority over the centrally controlled ministries’ local departments either, of course. It is at this level that one might hope that some form of genuinely representative democratic structures might emerge and gain acceptance and authority; the elected councillors tend to be a ‘mixed bag’, however, and seem to have been elected for a wide variety of reasons. Few have any experience of government or public office, and many have little education or relevant training. Some, but not all, have some level of tribal authority, if little else.

Although elected to represent the areas of the Province from which they come, nearly all of Helmand’s Councillors are in effect confined to Lashkar Gah and must rely on others for information from their home areas, which in most cases they can rarely or never visit themselves because of the all enveloping ‘security situation’. They are under threat in the same way as any individual publicly identified with the Kabul government or having contact with westerners is in Helmand, but being elected representatives and not mere officials are probably even more so than most. Without (or even with?) the security of an escort even travel in the central districts supposedly under Government and not Taleban control becomes very hazardous for Afghans linked to the Afghan Government, almost as much so as for the more obvious westerners. It is to be hoped that this fragile growth of local democracy will blossom eventually, but little can be expected from Provincial Councils whilst the ordinary population, especially in rural areas, lives in a permanent state of terror, fearing the Taleban on the one hand and on the other ‘warlords’ or ‘drug-thugs’ and their cronies in the Police and in Government, the balance of fear depending largely on where they live. The Provincial Council is, however, worthy of support and encouragement even though in its present form and early stage of development, and may in time help provide some form of compromise between western democratic ideas and more traditional Afghan approaches to government.

Elections and insecurity:

Afghanistan’s first real nation-wide elections in 2004 & 2005 went remarkably well in the circumstances, both in organisational terms and in terms of popular enthusiasm and participation, in spite of gradually increasing Taleban (and, it must not be forgotten, HIG (Hizb-Islami-Gulbuddin [Hekmatyar]) inspired violence. Since then insecurity, verging in some areas on all out war, has worsened to the extent that it is difficult to see how any real elections worthy of the name could be held in the next few years in most areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. To attempt to do so would require a far stronger force of foreign troops and Afghan security forces than the large number presently deployed, even in order to go through the motions. It is also difficult to see how elections could be remotely credible, let alone ‘free and fair’, in areas where any locals co-operating in organising them would be marked out for murder, and any locals (especially women) even voting would be living in fear of the same fate not only during the elections but thereafter. In many areas in the south it would be simply impossible even to attempt to organise the necessary electoral ‘machinery’. On top of this the enthusiasm that marked the first elections has certainly been dissipated by the poor performance of the government in Kabul and a failure to deliver on the ground much vaunted western promises of foreign aid. There is no real ‘party system’ or other means by which opinions can be expressed or policy alternatives discussed, and political leadership is still seen merely in terms of ethnic or tribal identity, or of individual power and patronage, by many. This can only make it less likely that people with no long term experience of, or great faith in, western style democracy will be willing to risk their lives voting in an election more or less under fire, when they have little hope left that the current government will improve if re-elected, and can see no viable alternative, in the absence of any credible or respectable constitutional opposition so far.

A failure to carry on and hold elections according to the constitution, however, will not only be yet another loss of face for the Afghan government and its allies, but will still further degrade its popular legitimacy if President Karzai and his ministers are seen to be continuing to cling to power with foreign support but without any valid legitimization by electoral process. I cannot see that there is any straightforward answer to this problem, and that anything can be done except to try and go ahead with elections in all those parts of the country where some form of security is possible, which in much of the south and east is only likely to be in some of the towns, even though this risks exacerbating divisions that already exist, and undermining whatever validity elections might otherwise have.

There can be little hope that merely postponing elections for a year or more by some semi-constitutional device will do anything but delay confronting the situation, which realistically is unlikely to have improved significantly in such a short period. If elections are held it might be hoped that some of the more unsavoury war criminals and drug thugs can somehow be legally excluded, or at least prevented from wielding the influence that they have in the past, but again it is difficult to see how this can be done without undermining the very ‘democratic principles’ that the elections are meant to demonstrate. Once again the absence of a working system of justice, and of the rule of law, makes it impossible for much of what was hoped for in Afghanistan to function other than as a sham. This failure has been brought about by having a government too weak to risk ‘rocking the boat’ by excluding, let alone charging and convicting, people whose very existence in public life makes a mockery of everything that post-Taleban Afghanistan is meant to be based on.

When it comes to deciding whether, when, and how elections are held, and what measures should apply to areas where they clearly cannot be held, there will need to be some widespread internal Afghan discussions if the outcome is to have any value or credibility. It is difficult for an outsider to assess whether the effort, expense, and bloodshed involved in holding elections in southern and eastern Afghanistan are warranted, given the widespread disillusionment with the current elected government that undoubtedly exists, and the lack of any obvious alternative.

Democracy or Tribalism?

Many will doubtless say, as has so often been said before, that democracy is foreign to Afghanistan (as to many other parts of the world) and that foreign inspired attempts to introduce it are doomed to ignominious and probably bloody failure. What has slowly and often painfully developed to suit European societies over hundreds of years can hardly be expected to fit quickly and neatly in a very different society, let alone one that has endured thirty years of lawlessness and civil war and was previously largely tribal in nature. The results of sudden democratization alongside decolonization in Africa and elsewhere, although in most cases relatively little violence had occurred, have hardly been encouraging in spite of western attempts to administer things (often fairly and wisely), and sometimes to actively prepare the ground for parliamentary democracy over a period of years. Certainly a society in which the majority of the population is impoverished and the majority of the rural population is illiterate cannot replicate exactly the workings of Westminster or Washington, and nor is there any reason why they should even attempt or wish to in every respect. Is it not patronising in the extreme, however, to presume that Islamic or Asian societies are too ‘primitive’ or even too ‘different’ for any form of representative government? Is there any alternative?

The Pashtun areas of Afghanistan (and of Pakistan) have certainly been home to some of the most fiercely ‘tribal’ societies known to modern man, and much of this traditional structure remains in place today. There are of course many elements of tribal society that seem attractive and valuable even to western foreigners, as well as to those who live in them, but is a return to government by traditional tribal methods and through the old structures desirable or even possible? It seems that many of those who talk nostalgically of a return to the old tribal ways of doing things in Afghanistan (and they usually seem to be westerners) often have little idea of what has been happening in Afghanistan over the last thirty-five years or so. Leaving aside for the time being the desirability or otherwise of ‘a return to the old ways’ and of abandoning ‘crazy western ideas of introducing democratic ways that are totally unsuited to Afghanistan’, is this even a practical possibility?

One of the many damaging side effects of the war against the Russians and the communist government in Kabul by the Mujaheddin to some extent, but to a far larger extent of the disastrous and destructive civil wars and ‘warlordism’ that followed, of Taleban rule, and of the burgeoning influence of the narcotics business, has been that in large areas of Afghanistan, and more significantly in the Pashtun areas than elsewhere, has been that ‘traditional’ tribal structures have ceased to exist or to function in the somewhat idealised way in which they are usually perceived. Although the Afghan communist governments’ attempts to ‘modernise’ the rural areas and to bring them under government control achieved little other than to antagonise and turn to violent revolt the Pashtun tribes who generally wished to be left alone rather than ‘developed’, subsequent events had a far more destructive effect on tribal structures. Such urbanization as has occurred also inevitably means that tribal identity has a different and somewhat lesser significance for urban as opposed to rural Pashtuns.

It must also not be forgotten that although Helmand is predominantly, even overwhelmingly, Durrani Pashtun in composition there are many other tribal and ethnic minorities involved, and when examined tribal divisions make the situation even more complex, rather than potentially simplifying government. Even among the Pashtun things are far from simple: apart from the leading local tribes of the Alizai, Noorzai, Isaqzai, Barakzai, and Alokzai, (and their various sub-divisions) there are other Durranis such as Popolzai, Achekzai, and Kharoti in small numbers, and many other small mainly Ghilzai Pashtun tribal minorities from elsewhere in the country (from as far away as Jalalabad and Laghman Province), such as the Mohammedzai. As well as significant numbers of Baluch and Barich (mainly in the south) and also of Hazaras, there are some Tajiks, Uzbeks, and small numbers of Turkmen present in the province, with even a small Indian (Hindu & Sikh) community in Lashkar Gah itself. There are also various other tiny groups of obscure and sometimes intriguing origin, such as the Awbazan, and of course many groups of Kuchis (nomads), who although largely sharing Pashtun tribal identities are still distinct from the ‘settled’ tribes, in spite of having suffered even more than most from the disruption caused by thirty years of war. Even most Afghans within the province have only a limited grasp of the complexities of tribal groupings apart from their own, or outside their own district.

Thus although an understanding not only of the overall tribal structure and history but also some grasp of the sub-groups or clans within them is essential if one is to make any sense of the actions and reactions of various individuals and groups, and this is as much the case for civilian as for military personnel working in the region, it is equally a mistake to see most tribal groupings as simple or as having a clear cut leadership structure. It is also not an insignificant co-incidence that there is a Pashtu word for ‘enemy’ that is also a word meaning ‘cousin’ (‘Tarboor’); intra-tribal divisions and feuds are often more significant than inter-tribal ones. Even more significantly and unfortunately, nearly all significant tribal leaders in Helmand, especially at the higher levels, are tainted in some way by the narcotics business, and have all too often gained there predominance by this means (and by straight forward murder) rather than by heredity or popular acclamation. The intertwining of tribal and criminal power structures means that it is difficult to imagine any way of reverting to a ‘traditional’ and relatively informal tribally based government, since in many instances this would merely be officially recognizing a form of oppression that can be as arbitrary, violent, and chaotic as that of the Taleban – or of the ANP at their worst! Tribal structures, leadership, and traditions must certainly be understood and should where possible be made use of, and even incorporated into the workings of government and democracy where appropriate, but do not on their own provide an alternative system, workable on its own. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are associated even in the eyes of many Afghans with the murderous civil wars of the pre-Taleban period, and with the failings of the present government, as well as with traditional virtues and ways of life.

Nearly all prominent local ‘leaders’ in Helmand have some more or less unsavoury background, and many of them retain their grip on much of the population through fear and patronage whether or not they have been deprived of official Government positions.

As always, there are a few exceptions to this, but those with much integrity or traditional legitimacy usually have less influence in consequence, and so can provide no basis on their own for some alternative political and government structure. One unusual figure worth noting, although not much seems to be known about him, is ‘Rais Baghrani’ (a local and tribal leader in Baghran District in the far north of the Province); although in a very Taleban dominated area he seems to have at the least survived fairly independently, if only by both sides agreeing to a form of ‘peaceful co-existence’. There may be some reason to consider some form of Governor’s council of those leaders of tribal and ethnic groups who are reasonably ‘clean’, but this should be in addition to not instead of the elected Provincial Council, which deserves continued support. I hesitate to use the word ‘Shura’ in this context (although that is what it would be) because it has been devalued by naïve overuse by many westerners, military and civilian, to describe meetings with usually self-appointed Afghan ‘leaders’ about whom and about whose motivation for attendance they know little or nothing. This has often led to many so-called ‘Shuras’ becoming a bad joke (and a chance of a free meal, hand-outs, and a bit of entertainment at the foreigners’ expense) locally, and a photo-opportunity for visiting prominent westerners who delude themselves that they are doing things ‘the traditional Afghan way’ but are really achieving something (not all of them, of course, especially military ones at a low level).

Any local Tribal leaders not working with the Taleban or ‘Drug-thugs’ who were to be co-opted into Government structures or who were visibly co-operating with the Afghan Government or foreigners in Helmand would of course be singled out for and exposed to murderous retribution, as has already occurred. This has even applied to low level officials, doctors, teachers, and so on, without any political or leadership role.

There has indeed been a rather strange tendency for British officials, and the journalists who are briefed by them (and again it would be laughable if it was not a serious matter), having arrived at the start full of modernizing, western democratic, gender neutral zeal and local ignorance, to start talking knowingly about doing things ‘the traditional tribal way’ and to refer with superficial historical sophistication to working ‘through the tribes’ as they did in the days of ‘the Great Game’, once things did not work out very well as they had naively planned them. This rather silly romanticism sits rather strangely with their dedication to the use of the largely meaningless modern jargon of management consultants and PR men. To refer to the ‘Great Game’ should of course be an absurd historical irrelevance since it was directed at keeping out Russian influence by manipulating often rather unsavoury Afghan leaders, rather than at promoting the interests of the Afghan people and dealing with the country’s internal problems. This shallow and inconsistent approach is exacerbated by the short period that British civilian officials spend in Afghanistan, and along with the ridiculously limited amount of time that most of them spend outside their safe quarters actually working with Afghans makes most of them virtually useless. In contrast, the original practitioners of the ‘Great Game’ lived, travelled, and worked for years in the region among Afghans and others, often alone or with hardly any escort, and came to know the country and its people intimately, not just through a dozen or so brief meetings with a few officials through interpreters! Although there have been several honourable exceptions to this description of British civilian official attitudes, it has to be said that in my own limited experience my US State Department and USAID colleagues were far superior in their approach and attitude, and in their desire to get out and learn about what was really going on.

Effective ‘Governance’, with a reasonable level of competence and integrity, is vital if the Government in Kabul and its Provincial representatives is ever to gain widespread acceptance and credibility, and to take the lead as it should, and must in time, in security matters, although with continuing foreign support. Otherwise it will be perceived by many Afghans as merely a self-serving and usually ineffective supporter of foreign military intervention. The same holds true in matters of economic development and counter-narcotics, where vigorous foreign efforts must be made to support the creation of a viable Afghan Government rather than providing an ineffective substitute for it, or worse still trying vainly to cover up its defects without providing remedies. ‘Tribalism’ must be taken into account, and where possible made use of in adapting what may often be largely foreign concepts to Afghan conditions, but is anything but an answer in itself to the country’s problems, particularly in Helmand..

Counter-Narcotics: large scale flower-arranging with poppies or a real solution?

There can be no denying that counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan overall, and in Helmand in particular, have so far been a failure. Although some local success has been achieved elsewhere in the country, much of this has been temporary, and will continue to be so unless the underlying causes of the problem are dealt with. Law enforcement, including poppy eradication, does and must have a role, but on its own can never even begin to succeed. Unfortunately the aims of attempts at eradication so far, and the difficulties associated with it, are often misunderstood in the outside world and the results on the ground have often been minimal at best and actually counter-productive at worst.

In Helmand and some other parts of southern Afghanistan links have developed between the Taleban ‘insurgency’ and narcotics, initially in cross-border smuggling co-operation and more recently in terms of Taleban ‘tax-gathering’, whether in terms of the crop itself or of other parts of the processing and trading procedure. This means that the insurgency can, as things stand, be largely self-supporting financially as long as the opium poppy crop prospers.

However, even in these areas to a large extent, and elsewhere entirely, the threat posed by the illegal narcotics trade is through its involvement in the wholesale corruption of government officials and the police (including many of those notionally involved in Counter-Narcotics), rendering government ineffective; through its subversion of the entire economy and the stifling of any legitimate economic development; and also through the growth of the heroin and opium addiction problem in Afghanistan itself, as a by-product of what is of course primarily a huge export business.

In recent years a large proportion of the opium crop has been processed into heroin within Afghanistan, whereas in earlier years most was ‘exported’ in its raw state; although following good capitalist principles, this does not give the poppy farmers an increased income, but does mean that narco-criminals within Afghanistan can retain far more of the profit involved, so if anything grow even more powerful. This is even more significant as not only the drug-thug/warlords benefit, but so too do the Taleban since they have started to become more directly involved in profiting from the narcotics business, at least in Helmand and some other parts of the south.

Corruption and Narcotics:

The corruption of government officials involved has not been tackled effectively at all. Many of those are well known and range from a step-brother of the President himself downwards, through the nominal head of the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics in Helmand (who himself grows opium, and has a daughter married to the son of a leading drug-dealer in the Province), to officials at the lowest levels, and of course also involves many ANP officers at all levels. Some senior ANP officers who have tried to do their duty (notably at Kabul airport) have suffered severely for their pains. The CNPA (Counter-Narcotics Police), although some elements have a justifiably good reputation, is sadly far from immune to this problem, and also suffers from a crippling lack of resources. A stern anti-corruption drive from the top down is an essential part of any effective counter-narcotics campaign, with the sacking of those known to be involved and the charging and conviction of those who can be brought to court. For this purpose a strengthening of the Counter-Narcotics Police and Judiciary is necessary, and this will need increased foreign involvement in this area in the short term at least. All this would of course be far from simple to achieve, but without it there is no prospect of success in counter-narcotics or in creating a credible and effective government, and one that is capable of defeating the insurgency. As things stand the credibility not only of the Afghan Government but of its western allies is fatally damaged by a failure to act, as foreigners are seen to be co-operating with officials and others well known for their criminal involvement.


There has been, and can be, no attempt to deal with the opium poppy problem through eradication alone. The scale of the problem makes this impossible, and it is sadly the case that between opium on the one hand and foreign aid on the other there is little else left of the Afghan economy! Eradication has been intended to introduce an element of risk into farmers’ decisions to grow poppies, in the hope that when weighing up all the factors involved, including the crop’s undoubted profitability, they will gradually abandon the crop. Unfortunately in Helmand this has been anything but the case. The crop has increased so much that sometimes it seems that the only limitation in its growth is the amount of arable land available; any further increase would probably require the use of window boxes in urban areas! Worse still, eradication has been in effect sabotaged by corruption, and has come to be seen by much of Helmand’s population as merely another way in which government officials and the police can extort even more money from farmers. The rich and powerful and those with the right connexions are seen, all too often rightly, as being able to avoid or bribe their way out of being hit significantly, and only those unable or unwilling to do as being the convenient scapegoats. This is notably the case with the Nad Ali District and the Marja Sub-District, where a large proportion of the Province’s opium production comes from, and where Helmand’s former police chief (and his son, in parliament!), hold sway. Although some reports were initially put out that ‘ARJ’s’ crops had been seriously hit this year this does not seem in fact to have been the case, although this has been pressed for by many of those involved for the last two years at least. The western (mainly American) advisers to the Poppy Eradication Force (formerly AEF, before that CPEF) have done their best, but not having executive authority over where eradication actually took place have been unable to prevent widespread subversion of the process in previous years, and some locals, unable to believe that westerners could be present and not be in charge, decided that they must be involved with the corruption too! Some improvement seems to have occurred this year in Helmand, even with ‘Governor Led Eradication’ (locally organised efforts that have in previous years been a fraudulent and embarrassing farce), but not nearly enough either to change popular perception of the whole affair or to have a significant impact on the size of the crop or on farmers’ future intentions. As in other ways, the new Governor has given ground for renewed hope in these matters, and could achieve a lot if he is properly supported by his own Government, and by the British and other westerners. The fact that farmers are often in debt and dependent on a large cash crop to pay off either landlords or opium dealers (who advance loans for the crop) means that in the absence of alternatives those who do have their crops eradicated may be even more likely to plant again, as they will be even more in debt and see no other way of paying it off. Some are also under other forms of pressure to plant opium, and very few dare to even speak against it. Some Mullahs, who even if they do not actually plant the crop themselves (as some do) usually benefit from ‘Zakat’ (an Islamic tithe) derived from it, are known to defend its cultivation on spurious grounds rather than condemn it as Islamic law demands of them.

Thus religious sanction, strong though it might be expected to be in what is meant to be a fiercely Islamic country, has little effect either. The almost complete effectiveness of the Taleban ban on poppy growing for one of the years when they held power, in order to curry favour with the west so as to get U.N. recognition, was based on sheer terror of the consequences of disobeying them, rather than on religious conviction on anyone’s part. In any case, stocks that had been built up and the price rises that followed the shortage of supply caused by the ban meant that even more money than usual was made by Afghanistan overall in that year!

To have any positive effect Eradication must hit large growers and government officials disproportionately; it must also be done on a larger scale, in those areas that are meant to be under government control, and combined with an appropriate follow up of agricultural development assistance. The method of eradication to be used is a matter for separate discussion, and is itself contentious. The timing of eradication, especially in irrigated areas, is also important, as if it is carried out at the right stage (early enough, but not too early) no re-planting of poppies is possible, but a second (food) crop can still usually be grown. As always, things come back to the security problem; government control and the removal of Taleban dominance (and that of other ‘warlords’ and drug-thugs) is necessary both so that eradication can take place on an effective scale and so that real agricultural development can be properly supported.

Without a real threat of eradication and the promotion of realistic ‘alternative livelihoods’ most ‘public information’ efforts in any form are of little value, difficult though this is for ‘PR’ obsessed westerners to accept. Areas of public information work that may still have some marginal effect are publicizing of the increasing damage that drug addiction is causing inside Afghanistan, and emphasizing the links between narcotics, insecurity, corruption, and lack of development.

‘Alternative Livelihoods’:

Foreign aid must be visibly supplied to areas that are, or can commit to being, opium poppy free, and especially where these are adjacent to opium growing areas this must be plentiful enough to make a visible difference. This should, where possible, be chiefly in the form of agricultural assistance to have any long term effect in providing a viable alternative to opium. This is difficult, but not as impossible as some superficial assessments suggest. Indeed, Helmand as a Province is in far better basic position to flourish agriculturally than most other parts of Afghanistan, because of its rivers and fairly well developed irrigation system. Many other Afghans are aware of this so are unconvinced and angered by pleas from Helmand and Kandahar that opium is only grown because people cannot survive otherwise; elsewhere this perhaps sometimes the case but it is not so in large areas of Helmand. There are crops that could be as or more profitable than opium if the infrastructure and security situation permitted access to adequate markets. Care has to be taken, however; including fertilizer for ‘alternative crops’ when seed is distributed is generally counter-productive as it is usually diverted to the more lucrative poppy crop, or sold! So far woefully inadequate attention has been paid to the development of real ‘alternative livelihoods’ for farmers, as will be seen when development efforts are examined. Afghanistan may seem to have little promise as an agricultural area, with only a tiny proportion of arable land, but given the nature of the problem agricultural development must be central to its solution, as well as to the development of a legitimate economy. There is little chance of other sectors of the economy providing one, in spite of some long term potential for mineral and fuel production; these are if anything even more dependent on security, infrastructure, and good government. Insufficient effort and imagination has been applied to this vital but less dramatic aspect of the poppy problem.

The dangerous idea of ‘legalization’ of poppy cultivation being a solution:

One of the ‘red herrings’ that regularly distracts attention from serious attempts to tackle the opium poppy problem is the fanciful idea that legalizing opium poppy production and buying the crop would solve both the illegal narcotics problem and the problems of low agricultural production and rural poverty simultaneously. The Senlis Council have already done some harm in southern Afghanistan by giving the impression, accidentally or not, to many Afghans that their workers have had contact with that legalization is only a matter of time. The argument for legalization rests on various false assumptions and ignorance of the reality of the situation in Afghanistan. One is that there is a worldwide shortage of morphine; this seems to be based on the idea that if Africa and Asia used as much morphine as Europe and North America there would be one (which is true), and that the discrepancy in usage can be explained by a shortage of the drug. This is simply not the case; financial, organizational, and other difficulties are involved. Another is that it would be possible to license growing of opium in Afghanistan and control production; given the largely lawless and generally corrupt nature of the country at present, this is clearly absurd. Afghan production is not even efficient enough to compete with existing highly organised legal morphine producers such as Australia and France; furthermore the price offered to legal (opium for morphine) farmers is lower than what is available to illegal producers on the heroin market.

Equally just buying up all opium production for destruction would only encourage even larger harvests, much of which would still go to the illegal trade, inevitably leading to higher prices and profits as the competition reduced supply without reducing demand. It would also stop Afghanistan developing productive agriculture and trying to grow enough food to feed its population, or even make some progress towards this objective, and so make it permanently dependent both on economic aid and on food imports.

Opium production is also banned under Islamic law, and under the Afghan Constitution. Thus, ironically, in spite of the approach taken by many Mullahs at local level, and the involvement of some of them in various ways with the crop, those Afghan religious figures who take a hard theological line reject even the production of morphine, which they also deem banned by the Holy Koran. As for the Constitution, it may be rather unimpressive in terms of implementation so far, but starting dismantling it is hardly going to help the Government’s position. I believe that the variety of the plant commonly grown in Afghanistan is not even ideally suited to morphine production, although I claim no specialist knowledge of this field.

Turkey, that was a large producer of illegal opium in the 1960s, does manage to produce the crop legally, but that is a country with a fairly well established government and rule of law. Pakistan, which also received US aid to destroy the illegal trade in the 1970s, managed to do so in spite of being fairly lawless in some regions and far from free from corruption, is no longer a significant illegal producer at all, having been a major one; but it does not attempt to allow legal cultivation of opium poppies either. Afghanistan, contrary to popular belief, was not historically a significant producer but has become one in the last twenty or thirty years. The examples of Pakistan and Turkey at least show that although it is a terribly difficult thing to do opium poppy cultivation can be stopped. Other areas, such as Rajasthan in India, that do grow legal opium suffer from a considerable illegal ‘leakage’ and addiction locally, and have considered banning the crop altogether.

Although law enforcement and eradication have their role in the war against Afghan opium, real alternative livelihoods in terms of crops for farmers, a viable economy and workable infrastructure overall and good governance in general are the key to the poppy problem.

It should also not be forgotten that the real root of the problem lies in the massive demand for heroin in western countries; it should be as much our responsibility to reduce demand as it is for Afghans to stop production. The growing scale of addiction to opium, and increasingly to heroin, within Afghanistan itself is also a matter of grave concern, and is still further damaging an already shattered society and economy.

The economy: development, aid, and agriculture:

It has already been stated above that Afghanistan has pitifully little in the way of a functioning economy, other than the illegal narcotics business and the absorption of large amounts of foreign aid (but, as is all too often the case, not as much as has been promised at various self-congratulatory conferences of donors). As has already been pointed out by others as well, a large proportion of foreign aid goes straight back out of Afghanistan if it ever reaches the country at all, in the form of payments for foreign consultants and advisers, imported supplies of all kinds, and not least in payment for the all too necessary security measures taken to protect foreign personnel and assets. Much of this may be inevitable, but needs to be much more closely scrutinised for ‘cost-effectiveness’. It is worth noting however that some civilian security teams are better value and far less restricted operationally than their western military equivalents and a few are highly trained and experienced personnel who are well worth their pay.

Unfortunately much of what does seep through some of the way towards its intended beneficiaries is wasted as well, and it is often surprisingly difficult to find means of spending money to useful effect, rather than simply handing it over to all too often incompetent and corrupt Afghan government and other local organisations, who may be absorbing money into Afghanistan in a general sense rather than into richer foreign countries, but frequently with little if any visible benefit to the population at large and without making any useful contribution to long term development. On top of all these obstacles the ‘security situation’ obviously makes practical development work of any sort difficult and sometimes impossible in much of southern (and eastern) Afghanistan.

The central role of agriculture in southern Afghanistan:

It should be self-evident that apart from the fact that the opium poppy is an agricultural crop, and therefore any counter-narcotics ‘alternative livelihoods’ efforts must be concentrated on crop substitution if they are to have any chance of succeeding, that Helmand has little if anything in the way of natural resources or industrial potential, and so must rely on agriculture as the mainstay of its economy. This may seem strange to many outsiders who are used to being told, and can see, that Helmand is largely desert and barren hills and mountains. As mentioned before, however, the Helmand and Arghandab rivers and the associated US constructed irrigation systems constitute a major asset and mean that large areas of what would otherwise be, and often looks like, barren desert, is or can be converted into fertile arable land. Although small in relation to the Province as a whole, these amount to a large area, which with some engineering and agricultural development work could be enlarged further, as was indeed the intention of the original American plan.

Given these circumstances it is strange, to put it politely, that the British PRT did not, and does not (to the best of my knowledge) to this day, include a singe agriculturalist or other relevant specialist adviser; a whole team of such people would seem to be more appropriate, and also a very high priority. The US PRT, small though it was, did have one USDA (Dept. of Agriculture) Advisor, who stayed on for a time after the UK takeover; no thought whatsoever seems to have been given to replacing him with a British (or any other) equivalent, let alone to increasing what should have been regarded as a central component of any development effort in the Province. This should have been done as a matter of urgency; the fact that agricultural development of its very nature cannot be carried out quickly, but must consist of long term work, pilot projects, and numerous experimental schemes, should not have stopped this being given the highest priority; on the contrary, it should have meant that an early start was seen as vital.

The Afghan Government Department of Agriculture in Helmand and other organizations in the Province included several individuals with the relevant training and experience and other skills, but above all with the motivation, to make a very valuable contribution to agricultural development in the Province if given sufficient external assistance and the right resources. Instead this field has been largely ignored by the British elements that should be concerned or at least aware (DFID/FCO) and effective efforts, even if they are still sadly inadequate - and sometimes flawed, have been made only by USAID and their contractors, and by other organizations such as CADG. The only member of the British PRT civilian element whom I remember as having any real interest in agriculture was not a member of DFID, as one might expect, but a representative of the British Embassy Drugs Team (BEDT), whose enthusiasm for this and for his work in Afghanistan in general seemed to be regarded as being in rather poor taste and somewhat irrelevant by his FCO and other colleagues. He was one of the few who appeared to be at all interested in Afghanistan and its people rather than in the vague nuances of policy pronouncements, and the presentation and styling for the media of local events that usually annoyed officials by their failure to fit in with British policy and the ‘party line’. Unpleasant Afghan facts are rarely allowed to interfere with policy or careers, however, and agriculture remained entirely neglected as a field of British official interest.

New and old crops in Helmand:

Although the opium poppy has gained an ugly predominance there are still other crops grown in Helmand which used to be the mainstay of the Province’s agriculture. Wheat is produced on a small scale, but as things stand is hopelessly out-priced by opium; rising world food prices may help to reduce the imbalance but are unlikely on their own to redress it. As a basic food crop, and as a matter of import substitution, it should however be possible to do something in this respect if some serious research into the matter is done. Cotton was also once a staple crop for the irrigated areas, but has been undermined both by the opium price and by the inefficiency and monopoly of the Government factory in the Province; independent traders coming from outside Helmand were able to offer slightly better prices than the State owned ‘Bost Cotton Gin’ in Lashkar Gah, where farmers are meant to take their cotton. In this instance US protectionism as well as other global factors are involved. If local farmers and others involved are asked what should be done to help legal local agriculture, they will almost always reply that assistance should be given to wheat and cotton growers. Given the widespread nature and relative success of these crops in the past, this is hardly surprising; those questioned generally have little knowledge of farming outside their own local experience, and no means of assessing the practicability of alternatives or even of discovering their existence. Thus although local farmers must obviously be consulted and asked for their opinions and advice, this on its own is totally inadequate as a way of directing the future of agricultural development, and although there may well be considerable scope for improving the productivity and profitability of ‘old’ crops like cotton and wheat, they will be totally inadequate as the sole basis of Helmand’s agricultural future, or as realistic substitutes for the opium crop on their own.

In addition to any measures that may be possible to revive ‘traditional’ local crops, an experimental scheme to introduce a range of alternatives is necessary, involving subsidised research projects and pilot schemes for perhaps a dozen or two crops new to but suited to the area. These should include more ‘market gardening’ type crops for local and regional consumption (an attempt to grow some food for the foreign forces in the Province, rather than continue to rely on all rations being imported at massive expense, should be included) as well as high value potential export crops suited to the climate, such as Saffron. This last was a possibility in which I discovered some Afghan interest and knowledge, but none of the necessary western support was forthcoming at the time. Saffron and some similar crops have many of the agricultural and commercial advantages of the opium poppy in Helmand: labour intensive, suitable climate and low rainfall requirement, high price/weight ratio so ease of transport. Inevitably, in the nature of farming, some such experimental crops would fail, some would more or less work, and a few might be a great success, but ‘nothing ventured nothing gained’ is the principle here.

There is also scope for the investigation of the possible introduction of desert or semi-desert crops to increase the productive area of the Province, and also as a counter-desertification measure; something like the ‘Jojoba’ plant, although it came to notice in Britain mainly as a temporary overseas investment fashion in the 1980s, may have potential: an oil bearing (for mechanical lubricant as well as cosmetic use) plant, with a low water requirement and general desert hardiness. This would have the advantage of supplementing agricultural production rather than merely substituting one plant for another.

In this field considerable agricultural expertise and imagination needs to be employed, not just the good intentions of amateurs or a few contractors on strictly limited single project contracts. Although rightly abhorred in many quarters, agricultural subsidies for experimental crops and to tide farmers over a transitional period from poppy growing (under strict conditions!) must be worth considering as what can be termed a ‘pump-priming’ measure. Western interest in ‘organic’ produce could also be harnessed in the area of a limited number of high value export crops. All this takes time and money, but a start has to be made somewhere, even as fighting continues. Proper co-ordinated planning of British, USAID, and Afghan and foreign NGO efforts in this field is vital.

Agricultural infrastructure and markets:

One of the reasons why Helmand’s legal agricultural production has shrunk, however, is not just the prevalence of the poppy crop but the difficulties farmers have in finding accessible markets except for the strictly limited ones provided by local towns. This is partly a matter of physical infrastructure, such as roads and storage facilities; USAID have made a small start in this respect, but more than just construction work is necessary even to make ‘internal export’ (from Helmand to the rest of Afghanistan) viable. Security, the rule of law, and anti-corruption measures are however equally necessary for arable farmers to be able to operate effectively with legal crops other than at semi-subsistence level.


In terms of physical infrastructure, USAID had an excellent project that achieved some success; building ‘cobblestone roads’ to a Latin American design. The Latin American specialists stated that their only drawback was a limited resistance to prolonged heavy rain; this is not much of a problem in Helmand! These roads were in many ways ideal: they were manpower intensive but actually cheaper to make than conventional tarred roads; the local populace was employed in large numbers and trained to build them, but then had a skill that could be used in employment elsewhere in the Province by some; virtually all the materials used were obtained locally and not imported; the roads were better wearing than most other types but stood up to heavy usage, and could be far more simply and cheaply maintained and repaired than most. Although not an important consideration locally, they were also aesthetically very pleasing! Many entire local families could be employed on different aspects of this project; this led to some very childish and presumably jealous jeering by some ‘Brits’ as it was discovered at one stage that children were also joining in the work, thus breaching UN rules; if no schools were open, it was only natural that the children would accompany their families, and was rather better than having children lancing opium poppies as also regularly occurs. Those concerned presumably thought that the alternative was Islington style state funded ‘childcare’, not the lonely sheep and goat herding that is the lot of most children in rural Afghanistan and many other parts of the world.

Another rather ludicrous objection had more serious consequences; some locals complained that camels and perhaps other livestock did not like the new cobbled surfaces! Since they could presumably continue to walk alongside the roads and be no worse off than before this should have been immaterial; it seemed however that what was really the problem was that the ‘cobblestone roads’ were not ‘modern’ and western enough, and were seen as being inferior to ordinary tarred roads (after all, did we have them in the USA and UK?); thus an excellent example of ‘appropriate technology’ largely ‘fell by the wayside’! Another example, perhaps, of local consultation, necessary though it is, not always providing the right answers.

One other USAID infrastructure project that rather surprisingly was completed successfully, having been started before the UK/US PRT handover, was a bridge built in Baghran District in the wild mountainous north of Helmand. Since no westerners have been there since it was started, however, no one knows if this was because it was clearly going to be even more useful to the Taleban and drug runners than to the local population! The construction of good roads and bridges can clearly bring military advantages as well as being a basic part of the groundwork of commercial life.

The Kajaki Dam, irrigation, and power generation:

After a great flourish and a major operational push last year little has been heard of any real progress in the project to increase the crucial Kajaki Dam’s power generation capacity. This is obviously still a worthwhile aim, but its location in the hostile and mountainous north of Helmand will clearly continue to hamper these well intentioned efforts; once again the all bedevilling security situation must be dealt with first, as should have been obvious at the start. When the Kajaki Dam improvement project was announced some misleading statements were issued by enthusiastic but ill informed military and government spokesmen: it was claimed that the project would not just produce more electricity but would also irrigate even more land. This would of course only be the case if new irrigation canals and so forth were constructed downstream and the existing old irrigation network (under HAVA, the Afghan Government ‘Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority’) was rehabilitated. Raising the dam wall and retaining more water would in itself do little or nothing for agricultural irrigation.

Livestock and the ‘Kuchis’:

The Kuchis (nomads) in former times had much larger herds of livestock, but the years of war and upheaval have whittled them down. There may be something that can be done to revive Helmand’s livestock through improved bloodlines, suitably positioned new wells, etc., but of course all the normal security and other problems apply in this instance as well. In former times considerable weaving (of Kilims, generally), was done by the Kuchis, which unusually in the region was done by men as well as women. This has all but died out and although a very minor matter is one of many such little things that add up to something worthwhile.

Land ownership:

As in many so called ‘developing’ countries in Africa and elsewhere – although southern Afghanistan sometimes seems to be deteriorating rather than developing – agricultural finance for farmers is difficult or impossible for many farmers to obtain. This makes the ‘salaam’ payments of opium dealers an attractive option for poor farmers; sometimes the only one. There are many obstacles to agricultural finance in such circumstances, but not the least of them is the absence of any firm title to land; without proof of ownership in order to provide security extension of credit to individuals becomes almost impossible. To prove ownership a functioning Land Registry is vital; the existing records are close to non-existent and almost useless, especially since corruption means that anyone can pay for a bit of paper claiming whatever they like.

A large part of the irrigated area of central Helmand is, or was, Government owned land. Some of this was legitimately sold off in the past, although again such records as exist seem to be confusing and incomplete, but much of it is illegally occupied, mainly by ‘drug-thugs’ and other ‘influential’ figures. Since nearly all of this illegally occupied land is used for growing poppies, it would seem to be a prime target for the eviction of those concerned and conversion to tenanted experimental farms. More importantly, however difficult it is to get genuine evidence of land ownership or legitimate tenure, a working Land Registry needs to be set up, slow and fraught with difficulty though this will be. This is apparently meant to have been started, but in large areas of the country nothing has happened, perhaps unsurprisingly given the scale of the operation and the obstacles to it. In spite of the daunting nature of the task, it will have to be tackled.

Agricultural training:

There used to be an Agricultural College of sorts in Helmand; unfortunately it was located at Garamseir, an area of heavy fighting over the last two years, and the effective ‘border’ or at least front line for much of the time. The last USDA Rep. at the PRT had noble if over-optimistic thoughts of re-establishing it even as the fighting flared; it had in any case been wrecked along with so much else during the war against the Russians and the civil wars that followed. Even if it is not possible to resurrect such an institution at the same location, something of the same sort is needed, perhaps in conjunction with the existing experimental farm (which is crying out for expansion) and other future agricultural development. The previous Governor (Assadullah Wafah) announced on his arrival among other things a rather bizarre plan for a ‘University of Helmand’; this was about as relevant and necessary as an Afghan Space Program, but there were signs of his ideas being brought down to earth and limited to a new Agricultural College, and this would still be a step in the right direction.

Industry and Food Processing:

There is virtually no manufacturing industry in Helmand worthy of the name, other than the ‘Marble factory’ in Lashkar Gah, which probably has limited scope for expansion. The obvious sector for development would be food processing and packaging for export and internal trade; this is obviously subject to all the constraints and obstacles already mentioned.

Education and Health:

In spite of some claims and the construction or re-opening of schools in some areas education has made no real headway in Helmand. Female education has suffered especially after some early improvements, and even primary education is generally patchy where it exists at all. Literacy levels in most remote rural areas are staggeringly low, and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future; leaflet drops in these areas by naively enthusiastic ‘PsyOps’ people will not have been much help except for fire lighting and other domestic purposes! Even in Lashkar Gah parents are very wary of sending girls to (segregated) schools because of Taleban intimidation and the underlying atmosphere of fear. Teachers have been murdered for no other reason than that they are teaching girls or are ‘working for the government’ and those who stay in spite of this cannot survive on their pitiful salaries. As a result during the poppy lancing season many teachers head to the fields, as do many of their pupils, to earn some money, and many schools even in Lashkar Gah are almost empty if they are open at all. Decent salaries and training for teachers, many of whom are still dedicated to their work in spite of all this, are needed even more than buildings. Any longer term improvements, as always, will depend on security. Well meant British plans to help build local ‘Madrassas’ have probably puzzled Afghans more than impressed them.

The health situation is little better; although there are some dedicated and efficient doctors and medical staff standards of sanitation and lack of resources still means that many die who need not. The British PRT and others have made some valuable efforts to help in this field, and much more could usefully be done by the military were the British Armed Forces not so woefully short of surgeons, doctors, and specialist medical staff and resources that they struggle to meet their own emergency requirements; another sad example of British political and Ministry of Defence short-sightedness. Doctors and other medical staff have also been murdered merely for their association with the Government, and little real medical help is available outside the towns.

Unsurprisingly, opium and to a lesser extent heroin addiction in Helmand have mushroomed in recent years. With BEDT and other foreign support Afghan treatment and rehabilitation efforts have started (by ‘WADAN’ in Helmand) but struggle to cope with even voluntary ‘self-referrals’. They have a high success rate, but will be overwhelmed and need both continuing and increasing support. Many people, men and women, start the process of addiction accidentally through impregnation of clothing and skin whilst taking part in poppy lancing; the general hopelessness of the ‘normal’ situation in much of Afghanistan is unsurprisingly a factor leading to addiction in others. The general population in Helmand has often been harshly unsympathetic to drug addicts and regarded them as weak and expendable victims of poppy induced prosperity; this may change as the numbers affected grow.

Afghan Women in Helmand:

The plight of many women in Helmand is so terrible that even the most hardened misogynist could not remain unmoved. This goes well beyond the normal Islamic and Afghan Cultural differences that might jar with some westerners. Years of war and the dislocation of traditional society have left large numbers of widows and abandoned wives, many with children, in Helmand as elsewhere in Afghanistan. Without the family and tribal support that might have sustained them in the past many are left to beg pitifully for survival, and Taleban strictures and the terror that they are still able to enforce means that there is usually little alternative, even within the traditional limits and laws of Islamic and Afghan society. Women’s centres in Helmand (and in Kandahar) and those who run them and help them have been the subject of murderous attacks and continue to operate under oppressive threats. These are not run by ‘Burqa burning feminists’, but by ordinary, fairly traditional and normal Afghan women, some educated, some not, who are trying to provide some hope and basic support for others.

British and other foreign help has been extended where possible; unfortunately too much overt association with foreigners, even foreign women, would only bring down more Taleban wrath on their unprotected heads, so the right balance is difficult too achieve. The women leaders involved are among some of the most admirable and courageous of the many courageous Afghans who struggle on against what must often seem like impossible odds. Remarkably small and unspectacular things can make a huge difference in such circumstances; training in ordinary domestic and educational skills and handicraft and poultry production may not look very impressive to distant western experts and bureaucrats, and ‘photo-opportunities’ are definitely to be avoided, but a lot can be achieved quite quietly for the individuals concerned. Unfortunately even such limited efforts can for the time being only be attempted in one or two towns.

Local contracting for construction and other projects:

A considerable amount of the limited development and re-construction work that has been done with British funds so far in Helmand has been planned by British military and civilian staff but implemented by local contractors and labour. This is of course both a safer way of getting things done than by putting even more British ‘targets’ out, and just as importantly puts more of the work and the money involved into the local economy, and so is eminently sensible in itself. Unfortunately yet again the ‘security situation’ intervenes, as in almost everything. Since it is extremely difficult, or sometimes impossible, for British or other foreign personnel to get out regularly or at all to check on the actual work involved, and few have any way of assessing local prices and practices, not only are many contracts grossly overpaid, but much construction is shoddily carried out, so little value for money is obtained, even if the projects concerned are in themselves worthwhile; often they are not. This wastage is worsened by the mentality of all too many involved, civilian and military, who see success in terms of the number of projects ‘implemented’ and completed and in the amount of money or proportion of the budget spent, which can be boasted about at meetings without any reference to the quality or inherent value of the work done.

What has been the impact of foreign aid in Helmand so far?

The whole business of getting things done on the ground, as opposed to put into detailed plans and presentations, has been painfully slow. Even the so-called ‘QUIPs’ (Quick Impact Projects: short term projects that were meant to be implemented and completed rapidly so as to show the local population that something was actually being done with international aid) were humorously, but all too accurately, described by the former Governor (Daoud), and others, as ‘SLIPs’ – slow impact projects. The population of Helmand in general, even in what are meant to be Government controlled areas, is still totally unimpressed by the impact of the foreign aid that they hear so much about, but see so little effect from in their own lives. Western efforts all too often seem to be directed more at impressing those dispensing aid themselves and their bureaucratic and political masters than at assisting the local population, who in the end will be the only ones who need to be impressed if the counter-insurgency is to be successful and some form of stable Afghanistan established.


It is all too apparent that the situation in Afghanistan, and in Helmand and the south in particular, is a complex web of interwoven problems that require serious study, long term effort, and minute attention to detail; not a barrage of political sound-bites and poses and attempts at quick-fix solutions. The outlook undoubtedly seems to be bleak as things stand, but although attempts by some British politicians and commanders to start claiming victory over the Taleban in the hope that by repeating this often enough it will eventually be the truth are pathetically absurd, and dangerously counter-productive, I do not believe that all is yet lost. The British soldier (and Royal Marine) is fortunately well attuned to the unintentional black humour of statements reminiscent of the old ones that ‘the war will be over by Christmas’ and ‘We’ve got ‘em on the run’! The first step towards any form of success must be a realistic appraisal of the situation as it is, and this has at least been attempted by some in the USA recently. Whatever the British do in Helmand the American approach elsewhere will in the end be a crucial factor for Afghanistan as a whole.

If there are key areas among the many to be addressed some of my main suggestions might be as follows:

Security: More infantry and helicopters, but crucially also a complete re-construction of the ANP alongside the build up of the ANA and perhaps of other local security forces. Closer co-operation between local and foreign security forces, in spite of the difficulties.

Governance: A serious and unrestricted anti-corruption and efficiency drive, as well as improvements in salary levels. A strengthening of an independent judiciary. Assistance with the gradual development of the role of the Provincial Council. Encouragement of the development of non-tribal national politics, along with the recognition of ‘respectable’ traditional tribal leadership and structures at local level where relevant and possible.

Counter-Narcotics: Effective but above all carefully targeted and timed eradication, co-ordinated with more, practical, ‘Alternative Livelihoods’ efforts that have a short and a long term impact.

Aid and the economy: Concentration on long term agricultural development and food production, for import substitution and of some high value export crops. Expansion of the irrigation system as circumstances permit. Considerably more resources allocated to agriculture and related infrastructure than hitherto.

Appendix: (see ‘The Musa Qala Agreement’ - What really happened:’ page 6 ):

The Musa Qala Agreement, translated into English from the Pashtu original in the Helmand Governor’s Office shortly after the event, complete except for the names of the sixteen elders in Musa Qala who signed it, which have been removed as a security precaution:

The Governor of Helmand’s requirements from the Musa Qala Local Administration selected by the Tribal Elders of Musa Qala.

  1. The Local Administration selected with the co-operation and support of the Tribal Elders and public in Musa Qala will work to serve the public, under the national flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

  2. The Local Administration selected with the co-operation of the Tribal Elders will stand against any kind of lawlessness in the region and will follow the Afghan constitution and other laws approved by the Government of Afghanistan.

  3. The Local Administration, selected by the public, will give a high priority to maintaining security in all parts of the district and will work together with the Tribal Elders to stabilize the region and to prevent any kind of threat to its security.

  4. The Local administration selected by the public, along with the tribal elders, will try to prepare the ground for reconstruction and new construction, and any other welfare projects in the region, and will actively participate in all other activities which bring improvements to local people’s lives.

  5. The new Local Government Administration selected by the public will regularly collect taxes and electricity bills from the people, transportation vehicles and shops, and will spend the money in consultation with the Provincial authorities on welfare projects.

  6. The newly selected Administration will support children going to schools and will keep schools’ doors open to the public.

  7. The new Local Administration along with the Tribal Elders and with public co-operation will provide assistance to project implementers and NGOs’ representatives and to government staff while they are visiting and monitoring development projects.

  8. The roads from Musa Qala to Naw Zad junction as well as other transportation routes will be opened for government and public transport. The Local Administration along with the Tribal Elders will co-operate to keep the roads safe for travel.

  9. The new Local Administration should guarantee that there will be no insurgent activities involving attacks on International Forces or the Afghan National Army while they are relocating their forces in the region, and the Local Administration and the tribal elders are also to be committed to protect government property.

  10. The new Local Administration along with the Tribal Elders and the public are committed not to support any insurgency in other districts or to again let the district become a safe haven for or allow camps for terrorists.

  11. The new Local Administration in co-operation with the Ulemas should try to bring Islamic unity and fraternity among all people in the region, and try to bring peace and remove any kind of enmity.

  12. The new Local Administration is committed to the ban and control of any kind of illegal arms.

  13. The new local Administration should try to help IDPs return to their homes, and help to provide them with emergency assistance.

  14. The new local Administration which is proposed by the Tribal Elders will start its activities after it is approved by the Governor of Helmand.

  15. The above mentioned points and requirements will be confirmed by further discussions and negotiations.

The above mentioned (15) Articles’ requirements from the Musa Qala District’s Elders by the Government are confirmed by the Musa Qala District Elders.

Signed by following (16) Tribal Elders:

[Names of the sixteen Elders removed from this copy as a security precaution]


Note on “A better sort of Opium War? Fighting and government, agriculture and opium poppies in Helmand”: recipients of this document in print or electronically are asked to respect the confidentiality of this document unless and until it is published, or unless permission is received from the author, and not to forward or give copies of it in whole or in part to anyone else in any form (electronic, printed, or otherwise) without prior permission from the author and without the same conditions being imposed on any subsequent authorized recipients. This restriction notwithstanding, US State Department addressees may circulate this document internally within State Department or USAID circles as appropriate, should they so wish.

The author worked for a year (April 2006 – April 2007) in Helmand (at Lashkar Gah) as an International Advisor to the ‘Poppy Elimination Program’ (PEP, now CNAT) under the US State Department through a US commercial contractor; the BEDT were also involved to some extent in PEP. The author had also previously worked in Afghanistan on Electoral matters in Laghman and Farah Provinces in 2004, and apart from some experience in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East had before that mainly worked in Northern Ireland and southern and eastern Africa in various military, police, political, and commercial roles.

Copyright is in any and all cases retained by the author, Charles Anselm Bennett (contact details below) unless explicitly transferred or relinquished.







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E-MAIL: last_pithhelmet@yahoo.co.uk or imbwabennett@btinternet.com

Great appreciation and gratitude is due to the work, advice, and assistance of the then Helmand PEP Team and of some other Afghan, American, and British colleagues which has contributed beyond measure to my interest in, and I hope understanding of, southern Afghanistan, but the opinions and statements contained in this writing, although I think they coincide with theirs in many cases, are entirely my own. In the circumstances it will be understood that it would be unwise to name individuals.

I make no apology for the fact that much of what I have written does not now (June 2008) seem to be entirely original thought; one of the many frustrations of working in Afghanistan was to repeat endlessly things that although they appeared obvious were steadfastly ignored by most concerned at the time, but a few months or even years later are pronounced with smug conceit by the same people, and by others, far too late in the day to be of much use, as if they were a new and unexpected revelation that no one had been aware of before. I may be out of date in some matters, although I have tried to keep in touch with developments in Helmand. Little seems to have changed overall. I have had no access to material other than my own compilations and the news whilst writing, and do not claim that the results are in any way comprehensive.

Disproportionate space has perhaps been given to the security problem in this document. This is not because it is in the long term more important than any other aspects of the Afghan ‘problem’, but because until some progress is made on the security front little else can be achieved.





©Jules Stewart 2010