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.