As thousands of US troops start arriving in southern Afghanistan this summer to try to dislodge the Taleban from their strongholds, a host of British civil servants are on hand to fill the political vaccuum.
Amid the rose bushes and machinegun towers of the British military base in Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital, are the British mandarins who talk of their work as a giant experiment in governance and security.
Leading them is Hugh Powell, a Foreign Office official whose father served as Margaret Thatcher’s foreign policy adviser and whose uncle was Tony Blair’s chief of staff. Mr Powell has been tipped as a future aide to David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader and a fellow Old Etonian.
“What we’re doing here is cutting-edge experimental,” Mr Powell toldThe Times. “I don’t think it’s been done on this scale anywhere else before.” The aim is to provide “good enough governance structures” protected by “good enough security apparatus”, he said.
At Mr Powell’s disposal are about 135 military and civilian personnel and 28 locals, living among a small army of mercenaries, interpreters, soldiers and contractors. The team is the largest of 26 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) across Afghanistan.
First set up by the Americans after the 2001 invasion, PRTs were designed to gather intelligence outside Kabul and handle development projects to win hearts and minds. Water towers and wells were typical examples. The idea was that building things for people would make them like you more than they feared your enemies.
But there has been no shortage of critics of PRTs in general and the Helmand PRT in particular. Sceptics have dubbed Mr Powell “the Viceroy of Helmandshire” because of his fiefdom’s cosy British conviviality and dislocation from the dilapidated provincial capital in which it sits.
Staff can relax on rugs and cushions on newly laid decking as they watch a Friday night film under the stars. Fragrant flowerbeds hem a wooden pavilion nicknamed “the bus stop”. There is even a beach hut.
On the other side of the perimeter’s blast blocks and concertina wire, men till the fields for a few dollars a day and live in fear of the Taleban, local warlords and criminal gangs.
An internal assessment by the Department for International Development, which sponsors Helmand PRT’s current experiment, found that a previous attempt to foster good governance ended in 2007 with “little evidence of tangible benefit” despite costing taxpayers millions of pounds.
The department said that “significant progress and developments” had been made since then.
Aid agencies claim that PRTs are blurring the distinction between the military and civilians in a country whose population is already suspicious of foreign soldiers.
Mr Powell said that without armed vehicles and bodyguards, “we would be targets” for the insurgents. As it is, his staff venture forth dozens of times each week to visit towns and villages along the Helmand River.
“People almost have to cut us some slack,” Mr Powell said inside one of the white-washed bungalows that dot the base. “It’s experimental, it’s new, there aren’t SOPs (standard operating procedures) for this. It will be, you know, a bit bumpy, but given all that, I’m pretty confident that we can make it work.”
The Helmand PRT now concentrates on what he called the “intangibles”, such as governance and the rule of law. Fundamentally, Mr Powell said, there had been a shift away from “the classic fix-a-mosque’s-roof type thing” to bigger infrastructure projects, which will persuade Afghans that central government will outlast the Taleban.
The central plank is harnessing the country’s rich history of village politics. Under the new “Afghan social outreach programme”, the Government is trying to devolve power to village level. A pilot scheme is running in Helmand.
With guidance from the PRT’s governance unit, local elders are being encouraged to become community council members, taking portfolios for justice or development or security. The idea is to build community responsibility and with it the confidence and security to resist Taleban intimidation. Elders from one nearby district even claim to have forced the insurgents to retreat.
Rocket-propelled grenades streaked through the fading light and exploded behind the US convoy patrolling in eastern Afghanistan. Muzzle flashes flared in the gloom as Taleban insurgents opened up with heavy machineguns and AK47s. Delta company was caught in an ambush.
Foul-mouthed soldiers swung their weapons towards a complex of mud-walled buildings 800 yards away. “Get some!” roared the gunner of an M19 grenade launcher. The thud of return fire from the Americans’ vehicle-mounted weapons began.
Soldiers inside their Humvees opened bullet-proof windows and slid their rifles through. Those on the right side of the convoy scrambled out and brought their weapons to bear on the sparks flashing in the distance. Red tracer flew towards the buildings.
“Three o’clock,” someone shouted. Grey smoke trails lingered in the air where the rocket-propelled grenades had exploded. Under orders to “shoot conservative”, combat veterans tried to calm adrenalin-pumped novices. “Take your time,” one shouted. “One burst every ten seconds.”
The slew of hot shell casings from the gunners’ turrets that had cascaded into the vehicles began to ease. A foot patrol cut around the insurgents’ flank as darkness fell, running hard through wheatfields, ducking every 50 yards. No one spoke. Everyone sucked in air.
Afghan National Police went with them as they pushed through the mud compounds. Breaking down doors by torchlight they found terrified women and children inside who said that they knew nothing. Some shielded their dignity by facing walls. The only man there of fighting age was blind.
Attack helicopters and F15 jets growled somewhere in the skies above and confirmation came through of two kills. The rest of the attackers had vanished. “They’re so much lighter than us,” 3rd Platoon’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Adam Novak, said. “They break faster.”
Part of the first ripple in the US troop surge to Afghanistan, Delta company and its sister units are securing a 67-mile stretch of the Kabul to Kandahar highway, the country’s main north-south road. Sixty per cent of Afghanistan’s population live within 30 miles (50km) of one of the country’s main highways, collectively known as the “ring road”.
“The single biggest measure the Afghan people have in their mind of whether or not there is security is their ability to travel with freedom,” Lieutenant-General Jim Dutton, Nato’s deputy commander in Afghanistan, told The Times. Reclaiming the ring road is a key plank of US and Nato strategy.
Delta company’s 3rd platoon had set out that morning for Chak district, a Taleban stronghold 40 miles southwest of Kabul. The American military says that until recently Taleban and foreign fighters walked the streets of Chak with impunity.
From a deep system of mountain valleys, insurgents have been able to threaten the highway and impose their own form of governance on the local population, creating a public relations disaster for President Karzai’s Government.
Only a few hours into the mission, in a district called Sayed Abad, a soldier drove a 33-ton armoured vehicle off a narrow mountain road. It tilted precipitously towards a 50-foot drop. Attempts to drive it on to firmer ground collapsed more of the road.
Lieutenant Novak radioed for a recovery vehicle and gave a wry grin. “This just increased our chances of an ambush,” he said. Minutes later the insurgents opened fire.
One bullet skimmed so close to Private James Radovic, 20, from San Diego, that it popped the pressure inside his ear. Another passed between two soldiers’ heads. More rounds zinged off rocks and Humvees.
The echo in the valley made it hard to tell where the fire was coming from. Unaware that they were being attacked from two directions, several soldiers crouched in open view of the insurgents. The attackers melted away as quickly as they had arrived.
“Four months of bulls**t for five minutes of fun,” Private Nick Benitez said. “We might be here a while ‘cos of that truck being down,” Private Andrew Jones said. “They’re probably doing a little intel and come back later.”
The mission to Chak by 3rd Platoon came two weeks after a patrol by a sister unit in the area. On that occasion US troops say that they fought insurgents for six hours, killing at least 12. To their surprise, the militants fought on even after heavily armed Apache gunships arrived to tilt the battle in the Americans’ favour. “They want ownership” of the area, Lieutenant Novak told The Times. “Their big focus is trying to break American will.”
Nine hours after it began going over the edge, the armoured vehicle was recovered and drove out of the gully it had eventually been lowered into. The vehicle had escaped with nothing more than a broken headlamp and a flat tyre.