April 2, 2008 – In Helmand province the British are supposed to be in charge. In Kandahar it is the Canadians, while in Uruzgan they have the Dutch. The Germans are in the north, the Italians in the west, the Americans all over the place but concentrated in the east. Welcome to the Nato mission in Afghanistan: a patchwork of fiefdoms nominally under one banner but which at times seem to be fighting different wars.
As Nato leaders assemble in Bucharest, at the back of many minds will be the thought that this was meant to be a peacekeeping mission, not a war. Doubts are mounting as to who has the will to stay the course in a conflict that could last decades. There are concerns, too, over the key policy of “Afghanisation” – handing over fighting, security and governance to the Afghans, seen as an exit strategy that has not always reaped encouraging results.
In the forward operating bases of Helmand, the British insist that progress is being made. Most soldiers believe that they will experience less intense fighting, expecting the war to switch from direct confrontation to a classic insurgency, giving them space to consolidate and concentrate on winning hearts and minds.
Bases in central Helmand that were under daily attack last summer are now relatively quiet. More development work is under way in villages, the British say, and they report that hundreds of enemy commanders want to give up the fight – the euphemism is “reconcile”.
But if reconciliation with the Taleban is a British policy, it is not an American one — “they just want to kill them” is a common refrain — and there are no signs of a more nuanced approach. A British official in Kabul said: “There is a lot of frustration that everything is on hold until the US election in November. Details of policy won’t be decided until that is out of the way.”
Other frictions have emerged. The smaller Nato partners – even Britain and Canada, which are fighting costly battles – are military minnows compared with the US contingent. At the other end of the scale is frustration at the Germans, whose 3,000-strong force is the third-largest International Security Assistance Force contingent but which is stuck in its relatively safe bases in the north. One disgruntled squaddie said: “The squareheads have got one of the finest armies in Nato but they hardly leave their bases.”
Internal squabbles are generally kept private but they surface often enough to demoralise the Afghans, who fear that the foreign soldiers will grow tired and leave. There is also distrust of the American liking for recruiting local militias, which reminds Afghans of the chaos of the 1990s.
Even if co-ordinating the Nato forces can be achieved, Afghanisation is proving a tougher nut to crack.
Building up the Afghan National Army has been one of the few clear-cut successes of the mission but it is still small – 61,000-strong at the moment, with 3,000 new recruits turned out each month. It remains dependent on Nato support, as well as being prone to desertion. It is years away from being able to take on the Taleban. The underpaid, ill-trained Afghan National Police are little better than bandits in many areas.
“Pulling out would have dire consequences for the alliance and it would be a disaster for Afghanistan,” Brigadier Andrew Mackay, the outgoing British commander in Helmand, told The Times. “It would lead to the return of the Taleban.”
Last month, when a Gurkha patrol reached a remote village in the north of Kandahar province, Zain Ullah, a farmer, gave them a stark picture of what law and order meant to him. He said: “We have to feed the Taleban because they have guns. Then the police come and harass us for feeding the Taleban. When we go to Kandahar robbers steal our money and motorbikes, some of them dressed like police or Taleban. We don’t know who is stealing from us — police, robbers or Taleban. What we need here is security.”