Phil, a Lance-Corporal in the British Army, reaches into his wallet and shows me the Taliban bullet that only narrowly missed him during his tour in Afghanistan last year. An old school friend who is now a Lance-Corporal in the British Army, Phil spent six months as a recovery mechanic embedded with the Scottish Guards just north of Lashkar Gar, Helmand province. His unit was subject to one of the fiercest tours of 2010, with nearly seven-hundred contacts with the enemy over seven months. Now, exactly one year today since his return and in the wake of the tenth anniversary of the initial US-led invasion, I ask him what he thinks about this seemingly endless conflict…
“I don’t think it’s a war that can be won in the usual sense,” he begins. “It’s not like World War II where you had two sides basically fighting each other to the death.” The war in Afghanistan presents a far more complex challenge, with numerous issues facing the Coalition which cannot be solved through pure military force.
With the withdrawal date now set at 2014, the training of the Afghan police and army remains a top priority. “It’s imperative that we leave behind a force that can look after themselves, and stand on their own two feet,” Phil tells me. He goes on to describe how these local forces would accompany his unit on patrol, and how their ability to speak with locals and their tendency to be more accepted into areas where women were present made them a particularly useful asset.
However, his impression of the local forces was not all positive. “Although the army seemed quite disciplined, I wouldn’t like to have been left alone with some of the Afghan Police, not at all. They tended to be a lot rougher looking.” The Afghan National Police have a very different role to the police in the UK, and are often used as an extra division of the army. Although 140,000 policemen have now been trained, serious concerns remain over poor equipment and high levels of corruption, with captured Taliban fighters often being able to secure their release through bribes.
Even in the comparatively incorrupt Afghan Army, there remain some doubts about loyalty. Phil explains how one Afghan national soldier was an ex-Taliban bomb maker, and had essentially switched sides because the government would pay him more money than the Taliban. That then raises the thorny question of how long the Afghan government will be able to rely on Western aid, particularly in the current economic climate.
Reconstruction and the ongoing struggle to win the hearts and minds of the local civilian population remains another vital component of the war effort. As well as overseeing the rebuilding of infrastructure such as wells and roads, Phil describes how his unit would give medical treatment to locals, often victims of Taliban retributive attacks or IEDs. However, he remains sceptical about whether the locals in Helmand always appreciated the British presence. “Most of them just want a hassle-free life. When we come to Taliban-held areas and try and get rid of them we upset the balance, the Taliban become more violent towards their own people and the civilian population gets caught in the middle.”
It’s a similar story with opium. Eradication campaigns have fuelled the resentment of locals, whilst attempts to persuade farmers to adopt alternative crops such as sweet corn have failed due to the much higher income derived from poppy cultivation.
The ambiguous role of Pakistan remains another sensitive issue, with U.S. allegations of longstanding links between the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence services. “I think they’re playing a double game. They say they’re guarding their borders, but they could definitely do more to stop what is going on.” It is widely suspected that most of the Taliban’s funds, weapons and explosives are channelled in through the Pakistani border, whilst much of the Taliban leadership remains hidden in safe havens in Pakistan.
In addition to these seemingly intractable problems, the fighting spirit of the insurgency shows no sign of abating, with US monthly casualties in August this year being the highest since the war began. Phil experienced firsthand the horrors of battle, having seen two of his friends shot dead and another three seriously wounded when his unit was ambushed during a coordinated Taliban attack. “I think about it every day,” he comments solemnly. “It was absolute chaos; we were trying to evacuate the wounded whilst getting picked off at close range.” Taliban snipers using ‘murder holes,’ which are small holes made in mud-brick walls, have been deployed to devastating effect. One week after the fateful incident in which two servicemen lost their lives, Phil witnessed a British sniper get taken out by a rival Taliban marksman. Later that day he was on duty in the same bunker when he heard a bullet whistle past before landing just one foot away from his face in the sandbags. After staying down for two hours, he eventually got up to retrieve the bullet which he keeps with him today, as a memento of how lucky he was.
Perhaps influenced by his harrowing firsthand experience of the conflict, Phil remains sceptical about the reasons for which British troops are allegedly fighting: “What we tell the nation, that we are there to quash the Taliban, terrorism and Al-Qaeda, I don’t think that’s worked particularly well. I think our army should be more focused on defending our own shores and not fighting a war in another country.” He is also adamant that the army should spend more money on giving proper kit to its soldiers, describing some of the equipment he was given as second-rate.
Yet, in spite of this, he agrees that British troops should stay for a few more years. “I don’t think we could pull out immediately, so the 2014 deadline seems about right. They just need a couple more years of us helping them, a few more years of experience.” In particular, in light of all the sacrifices that have been made, it seems that the most important thing is to have a sense that something meaningful has been achieved, that not everything has been in vain. “It’s important for them not to hit rock bottom again,” Phil concludes. “I think we should be able to walk away with some sort of pride.”
(PI Media, UCL Student Newspaper, 2nd November 2011)