Hope in Helmand

Having read Stephen Grey’s take on the U.K.’s operation in Helmand, I feel compelled to offer an alternative perspective, one based on many months of both studying Helmand and operating within it, most recently as the Commander of British Forces last year. In short, Helmand is far from the disaster portrayed. I acknowledge its unenviable ...

Massoud Hossaini/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Massoud Hossaini/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Massoud Hossaini/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Having read Stephen Grey's take on the U.K.'s operation in Helmand, I feel compelled to offer an alternative perspective, one based on many months of both studying Helmand and operating within it, most recently as the Commander of British Forces last year.

In short, Helmand is far from the disaster portrayed. I acknowledge its unenviable status as Afghanistan's most violent province, and the scale of challenges NATO troops have faced and continue to face there. But the notion that the British-led force has failed in its prosecution of the campaign since its arrival in 2006 is wrong and misleading. Genuine and lasting progress has been made in Helmand in the last four years; provincial and district governors are delivering on behalf of their people, the licit agricultural economy is developing strongly, and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers are working impressively alongside their Afghan counterparts to deliver the legitimate security that communities desire above all else. The vast majority of the population is now within the security umbrella provided by ISAF and Afghan forces and, critically, the people are increasingly looking to legitimate Afghan governance to provide their needs and respond to their concerns.

Helmand was never the "quiet backwater" described by Grey. Along with Kandahar, Helmand is renowned as the traditional heartland of the Taliban; a well-trodden transit route for criminal and terrorist activity and the hub of the narcotics industry that provides so much of the insurgents' revenue. That's why there is so much activity there, and why British troops were deployed there in 2006 as part of NATO's expansion into southern Afghanistan in response to a growing threat of a resurgent Taliban.

Having read Stephen Grey’s take on the U.K.’s operation in Helmand, I feel compelled to offer an alternative perspective, one based on many months of both studying Helmand and operating within it, most recently as the Commander of British Forces last year.

In short, Helmand is far from the disaster portrayed. I acknowledge its unenviable status as Afghanistan’s most violent province, and the scale of challenges NATO troops have faced and continue to face there. But the notion that the British-led force has failed in its prosecution of the campaign since its arrival in 2006 is wrong and misleading. Genuine and lasting progress has been made in Helmand in the last four years; provincial and district governors are delivering on behalf of their people, the licit agricultural economy is developing strongly, and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) soldiers are working impressively alongside their Afghan counterparts to deliver the legitimate security that communities desire above all else. The vast majority of the population is now within the security umbrella provided by ISAF and Afghan forces and, critically, the people are increasingly looking to legitimate Afghan governance to provide their needs and respond to their concerns.

Helmand was never the "quiet backwater" described by Grey. Along with Kandahar, Helmand is renowned as the traditional heartland of the Taliban; a well-trodden transit route for criminal and terrorist activity and the hub of the narcotics industry that provides so much of the insurgents’ revenue. That’s why there is so much activity there, and why British troops were deployed there in 2006 as part of NATO’s expansion into southern Afghanistan in response to a growing threat of a resurgent Taliban.

As Grey points out, it has not been an easy four years since. The insurgents have come at us with a vengeance and I accept there have been times when the British-led NATO forces in Helmand were stretched thin and under pressure. But as with every campaign of this type, and entirely consistent with the experiences of the U.S. and our other allies, we have adapted our approach and force levels in response to the changing situation on the ground. During the first six months of the U.K. deployment, we increased our force levels by over a third and over the period of our involvement we have increased troop numbers from 3,250 to nearly 10,000, ably supported by our superb allies from Denmark, Estonia, the UAE and others. We have never been "wedded to a conventional mindset" and have always sought to improve and learn from others as we encountered the realities on the ground.

Such investment was matched by a growing and increasingly effective civilian effort. Far from being a "parody," the multi-national Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has delivered incredible results in a hugely challenging environment and is now held up as an exemplar of the Afghan-led approach and civil/military cooperation. A trip around the principal towns of Lashkar Gah, Nad-e-Ali and Gereshk reveals bustling bazaars, thriving communities and a real sense of irreversible momentum among the Afghans. The effect of such progress is felt across the province.

The sizeable uplift of NATO forces in Helmand over the last year, principally from the U.S. Marine Corps, is both a reflection of the importance that Gen. Stanley McChrystal accords Helmand, and recognition of the scale of the challenge faced there. Sensible changes to the command structure have followed and the British-led brigade finds itself proudly serving under command of an American general. This is not a bailout, nor does anyone on the ground view it as such. Go to Helmand today and you will witness troops of many nations operating happily and effectively alongside each other, all under the NATO banner, all with shared objectives and a common approach. The unity of purpose is palpable, made all the more so by the risk and austerity the troops face every day.

Stephen Grey is a respected journalist and is no stranger to Afghanistan. But he paints a falsely bleak picture of the situation on the ground in Helmand and of the performance of the British military. I accept that there have been setbacks and mistakes along the way, and I do not duck the scale of the challenge that those on the ground continue to face. But despite the difficulties and the sacrifice, the endeavors of NATO and our civilians have delivered real progress and continue to do so. The Afghan government’s writ extends throughout Helmand in a manner that is unrecognizable from the situation in 2006, and its security forces are increasingly able to carry the baton. There is still much to do, and there will be tough times ahead but, even in the most challenging province in Afghanistan, there are grounds for optimism.

Major General Gordon Messenger RM, the chief of defense staff’s strategic communications officer, is the lead spokesman on British operations in Afghanistan.

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