4 Mar 2010

Air of familiarity about Brits moving on from Helmand

Expect Britain to fairly soon slowly sidestep away from Helmand into Kandahar, but it will be no comparative picnic writes Asia correspondent Nick Paton Walsh.

It has the air of familiarity about it. The British army take over an entire area for a number of years, face great challenges, find themselves under-resourced to do what they want to do, valiantly persevere despite this, less valiantly mask the full extent of their shortcomings, and then hand over to the Americans a few months later.

It happened in Basra in 2008, when the US military swooped in – about 800 of them with all important air support the British had lacked – and cleaned up the area within months.

And – if the reports are accurate – it seems to be happening again, this time in Afghanistan. Britain may soon relinquish control of Helmand and continue its fight in neighbouring Kandahar.

Today, the Wall Street Journal became the second newspaper to report that the British military will soon hand over operational control of Helmand to the US Marines.

Britain will then move on towards focusing its control on Kandahar, and take up some of the reigns of the upcoming assault against that Taliban stronghold.

It’ll become – it is indicated – a British controlled area, although anyone familiar with how the US military works knows they won’t really fancy being under 100 per cent British command when they march on, or hold, Kandahar.

As yet, this is a shift in who commands what, and doesn’t necessarily mean British troops will change their positions immediately, or leave Helmand overnight, or completely.

But one maxim normally holds true, even in the multinational force that is Nato. Nationalities that run certain areas tend to command themselves. British command of Kandahar will almost certainly send British troops there.

While I couldn’t get anyone to confirm the Wall Street Journal story as gospel, nobody would deny it either. We might hear something official in the coming week.

Nuances may change, but expect Britain to fairly soon slowly sidestep away from Helmand. Kandahar will be no comparative picnic – it is the Taliban’s symbolic, strategic heartland – but they will fight alongside thousands of US troops, with all the resources that entails. Another long, dirty, threadbare fight in the desert it won’t be.

British troops have fought alone in the violent deserts of Helmand for far too long, the addition of thousands of US Marines last year something that had been badly needed.

And it is about right that eventually they hand over this province – which they leave perhaps more under Nato control than when they first came there – to a better resourced counterpart.

There is another side to this perhaps, which is less flattering to both the Americans and British. The Americans like having partners on paper, but in the field sometimes find all those other considerations that come in to play when you’re working in partnership, just get in their way.

If you recall, the last assault in Helmand was a joint operation (Moshtarak), but in practice the US Marines belted into Marjah, the stronghold, while the vast bulk of the British effort remained in Nadi Ali, an area they had been telling us they were in control of over the past year, albeit on and off.

There is a positive note to this: Britain may hand over the reins of Helmand at a time when the “narrative”, as they like to call it, is in Nato hands. It is now a positive story of a bid to expand government and take back the most lawless of areas.

Britain had to go one day, and here may have picked as good a time as any. The only disquieting aftertaste comes from knowing – while British troops gave their all – their political masters were never able to match the resources of our American successors.