| ||British Get Blamed for Helmand Security Problems|
By Wahidullah Amani in Kabul and Aziz Ahmad Tassal in Helmand
Allegations in an Afghan parliamentary report that British forces are actively promoting strife reflects lingering suspicions of a country many still see as a historical enemy.
“The British do not want to bring security to Helmand,” said Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojadeddi, speaker of the Meshrano Jirga, parliament’s upper house. “They could wipe out the Taleban in a day if they wanted to. The Taleban are not as strong as they say.”
Mojadeddi’s words were salt in an already raw wound. The British have been bogged down in an increasingly bitter battle in the southern province of Helmand for more than a year, when they took over command from the United States-led Coalition.
The transition was not a smooth one. The British forces came in as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, with a different mission and rules of engagement from the Coalition. Whereas the latter was – and in other parts of the south still is - involved in an aggressive counter-terrorism campaign, the British were supposed to be bringing the security needed to allow reconstruction efforts to take place.
Over the past 18 months the insurgency in Helmand has boomed, reconstruction has stalled, and the local population has become more and more disaffected. The British have had to engage in operation after operation to clear the province of hostile elements, while the top NATO commander publicly admits that Afghan government forces are unable to hold the territory gained in such battles.
Now the British are being criticised by Afghanistan’s senate, in the wake of a report delivered by Helmand member of parliament Abdulwahid Karezwal. After a fact-finding trip to his home province, Karezwal told the Meshrano Jirga that British soldiers are involved in intrusive and offensive house searches, and that they bomb villages and kill civilians, including children.
“The real reason behind the insecurity in Helmand is the behaviour of the British soldiers,” he said.
The senators reacted angrily to his report, demanding that the accusations be investigated and action taken.
The contents of the report and the Meshrano Jirga’s response to it highlight one of the major stumbling blocks in the British campaign to bring security and stability to Helmand - many local residents simply do not accept that the foreign troops are on their side.
“The British want to avenge their ancestors,” asserted Mohammad Hanif Hanifi, a senator from neighbouring Uruzgan province, expressing a commonly-held view.
The British have had a long and troubled history in Afghanistan, beginning with the Great Game of the 19th century, in which they tried several times to create an Afghan buffer state to safeguard their Indian empire from the expansionist Russians. The rebellious locals were not cooperative, and three unsuccessful wars ensued. The most disastrous military engagement came in 1880 at the Battle of Maiwand, on the Helmand river, which resulted in the deaths of over 1,900 British and Indian troops.
Nearly 130 years later, Helmand’s residents still remember the tales, and they are convinced that the British do, too.
“Their predecessors were defeated in Helmand, and that is why they are creating insecurity in the province,” said Hanifi. “This is why they kill local people.”
Prior to the arrival of the British, security was much better, he insisted. “When the US forces were here, the province was safe, and people had a better relationship with the foreign forces.”
According to Hanifi, the Meshrano Jirga intends to send a copy of its report to President Hamed Karzai, with a request that strong action be taken.
“Security cannot be restored in Helmand province until the British are removed and another country’s forces are deployed,” he said.
Hanifi’s opinions are widely echoed in Helmand. Locals are convinced that the rapid downhill spiral in security that occurred with the British arrival was no coincidence.
“If the British are here today, it is because they want to fight the Pashtuns,” said Sultan Mohammad, a resident of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. “The British have modern technology and weapons, but they are unable to defeat the Taleban. Why can’t they ensure security, with more than 7,000 troops present in the province? They cannot do any reconstruction; they cannot win the hearts and minds of people. In reality, they do not want security.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Eaton, ISAF spokesperson in Helmand, rejects any suggestion that the British troops aim to do anything other than provide security and stability.
“We are here at the request of the Afghan government, and by decision of the United Nations Security Council,” he said. “NATO forces launch joint operations with the national army and police. They do not conduct searches alone.”
The only reason the British were in Helmand was to create security, he insisted. “NATO and ISAF are here to prevent Taleban attacks on the Afghan government and on ISAF,” he said.
The head of Helmand’s provincial council, Mohammad Anwar, also rejects the senators’ accusations.
“Many years have passed since the Afghans and British fought,” he said. “The British are here to help, not for revenge.”
Ghulam Sarwar Ghafari, a political expert from Helmand, condemned the parliament’s verbal assault on the British.
“It is a very bad thing for parliament to accuse the British of not wanting security,” he said. “That is not parliament’s job.”
Ghafari was not quite ready to leap to the defence of the foreign troops, however. “The UN should establish a supervisory council and investigate the British actions,” he said.
Public opinion tilts towards the parliamentarians’ view.
“The people of Helmand cannot tolerate searches of their homes by the British,” said Sardar Mohammad, a schoolteacher in Lashkar Gah. “For a foreigner to enter the house of a Pashtun without permission is a crime against humanity. The soldiers should be tried and punished. They kill or imprison innocent people, calling them al-Qaeda or Taleban.”