Belfast Telegraph

‘There is no Plan B’

The attack by a rogue Afghan soldier that left an Ulster-born officer and two of his comrades dead will not deter the Army’s mission, says Captain Doug Beattie MC

War, as the saying has it, is a dirty business. The risks faced by British troops in Helmand are all too real as the roll-call of casualties proves on a daily basis.

For the soldiers — those with their boots on the ground — it is bad enough confronting a dangerous enemy without also having to contend with the murderous actions of so-called ‘friends’.

And for the families of the three men killed earlier this month by a rogue member of the Afghan Army, their anguish will only be matched by anger at the circumstances.

But behind the individual tragedy is the bigger picture of an evolving policy.

Over the past six months, there has been a change in the working relationship between the Brits and their Afghan counterparts.

What was a system of mentoring — where British troops taught and led members of the fledgling Afghan security forces on operations — has morphed more into a relationship of equals.

Where once there was master and pupil, now increasingly there is a partnership; a sharing of responsibility and risk; a clear recognition from both sides that one day soon (depending who you believe) the Afghans will be on their own.

Though it is painfully evident from the events earlier this month that not everything is going to plan, much of it is. The numbers bear that out.

What took place was a rare event. Over the years, 130,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen have received coalition support and training.

Yet since 2006, this is only the third such occasion where those we are helping have turned their weapons on us.

Such bald statistics are of absolutely no consolation to those who have just lost their loved-ones.

But it should offer some reassurance to the families of all the other troops currently serving in Helmand and beyond, or just about to do so.

The majority of the Afghan |National Army soldiers in Helmand are actually from the north of the country.

They are Dari speakers, recruited from the Hazari, Uzbek and Tajik communities. They have little in common with those living in the south — and that is no |bad thing.

Their geographical and ethnic distance from the people and places of Helmand mean they do not so easily buckle under the physical and psychological pressure exerted by insurgents, many of whom come from the province’s majority Pashtun population.

Following the death of five British troops last November in similar circumstances, it might appear that lessons have not been learned. But things did change.

Robust procedures were introduced to ensure soldiers were protected at all times — not just while on an operation — either by carrying a weapon, often a service pistol, or by being in the presence of an armed colleague. In my experience, disobedience and resentment amongst Afghan forces is often the result of frustration at mundane things such as lacking decent equipment or not being paid on time, rather than any deep-rooted, festering ideological antipathy.

However, the logistical and organisational structure of the Afghan security forces has improved significantly since my first exposure to it five years ago.

At a political level, the recent events are being talked down.

The underlying goal will be reiterated and the overriding benefits of coalition co-operation reinforced.

The sooner we train the local forces, the quicker we can get the hell out. For ministers there is no other policy choice.

There is no Plan B. This is our exit strategy.

On the ground, British soldiers are today back out on patrol |in Helmand — just like every other day. It is as if nothing has happened.

Of course, everyone currently serving in Helmand — as well as further afield — has an opinion.

But then, for better or worse, something happens almost every day in Afghanistan.

And every day, in spite of the dangers, work goes on and the job in hand gets done.

That’s the reality of war. As I said, it’s a dirty business.

Captain Doug Beattie MC is the author of An Ordinary Soldier and Task Force Helmand (both published by Pocket Books). He’s carried out two tours of Afghanistan — 2006 and 2008

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