I know what it is like to look down the barrel of a gun held be my supposed colleagues. In 2008, my men and I were held at gunpoint by soldiers of the Afghan National Army while some of their associates turned weapons on an insurgent we had captured during a fire-fight. Seconds later the prisoner was dead, cut to pieces by 7.62 rounds from the Kalashnikovs our allies used to mete out their rough justice.
But we were incidental to proceedings. The target was the prisoner not us. We were being kept out of the way while the ANA vented their lethal fury on their true enemy. These days’ things are rather different in Helmand and beyond.
If you take a forensic look at the growing spate of Green on Blue incidents – or as ISAF now like to call them, ‘Insider Attacks’ taking into account the Afghan attacks on other Afghans that we don’t regularly hear about – you will come up with various reasons.
At the moment about 10% are directly attributed to insurgent activity, with perhaps the same number again suspected of being enemy related. But the rest are rather more mundane: cultural clashes and personal grievances for example, also the effect of events that might be taking place far beyond Afghanistan’s borders.
The release of the ‘Innocence of Islam’ and the consequent storm of protest and outrage it unleashed is a case in point as was the accidental burning of pages of the Koran earlier this year.
The tensions led to sensible precautions being taken such as the limiting of joint Coalition-Afghan patrols at local tactical level and now at the strategic level. Yet is not the step backwards some have portrayed it, instead it is the development of an ongoing campaign.
Previously a company-level risk assessment would be carried out before any military patrol which involving Afghans forces took place. This would need to be signed off by the Battle Group (Battalion). Now, on the orders of the Commander ISAF, that level of scrutiny has now been given another layer.
Now the initial assessment will still be conducted by the company and then passed up the chain of command as before for scrutiny. But now it also needs the rubber-stamping at Task Force level. A ‘no’ might arise if a major political or cultural factor was identified at national or even global level that could inflame tempers at the micro-level. Such was the case with the film.
The reality for British forces is they don’t work at Battalion level; instead they work at the company level spread out all over the central populous belt of Helmand. So in essence they will continue to partner and mentor the Afghan security forces in exactly the same way as we did previously but with more oversight by commanders with an eye for the bigger picture.
To say there have been catastrophic events in Afghanistan recently is indisputable. But as ever, context is all. Despite the picture the media are tempted to portray of a coalition crumbling, these attacks – especially where they are driven by the enemy – mark points on an evolving landscape and potentially the move from one phase of the campaign to another, just as in 2008/9 the proliferation of IEDs increased dramatically and two years later the enemy switched to the targeted assassinations of government officials.
Some may find this hard to swallow, but the Coalition forces and the Afghan Army and Police have made major gains in the last couple of years and the strategy of partnering Afghan security forces is working.
We forget that half of Afghanistan is now under Government security force control. The strategy to hand over the remaining areas by district and province is still well on track and the effectiveness of the Afghan Army increases day by day.
The Afghan Police are still less developed than the Army but that may be due to their mentoring only really beginning in any coherent way in 2009 – three full years after the programme with the Afghan Army began.
Of course we need to train Afghan forces so that they can determine the fate of their own country. Selfishly, the quicker we do this then the quicker we can withdraw. And the better the Afghans are at their jobs, the easier our departure will be. We need the Afghan forces
to provide time and space to allow an orderly pull out rather than a humiliating, ragged, fighting withdrawal with all the British casualties that will entail. For that reason the mentoring must continue, despite the risks.