Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Impact of UK Handover of Helmand Capital on Afghan Future

Britain’s withdrawal from Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province in the south, will be a critical test for the Obama administration’s Afghan strategy which was discussed in the last post. Among US allies, Britain has made by far the largest contribution to the War on Terror both in Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to the surge in 2009, Britain urged the Obama administration to accept the surge plan by General Stanley McChrystal. Defence Secretary-then Bob Ainsworth said that additional US troops be sent to reduce British casualties. General Sir David Richards, Commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, stressed that defeat for NATO would have an "intoxicating impact" on extremists around the world. The special relationship between Britain and the United States had some impact on President Barack Obama’s final decision for the surge. Furthermore, the British Army made a tremendous achievement in Afghanistan. In November 2009, Corporal of Horse Craig Harrison of the Household Cavalry killed a Taliban soldier at a range of 2,475 m (2,707 yd) with his rifle. This is a Guinness Book record of sniper shot in combat. At NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in Brussels this June, Defence Secretary Liam Fox trumpeted British commitment to the Western alliance, when US Secretary of Defense-then Robert Gates urged more defense spending to other European allies ("Gates Questions NATO's Future"; Wall Street Journal; June 11, 2011).

Considering such great contributions by the British forces, a handover of Lashkar Gah to the Afghan security forces is a critical test for the next step in this war. While the British government stresses progress in security there, things are still volatile. A failure of power transition in Lashkar Gah will inflict significant damages on ISAF operations and Obama’s plan for US troop pull out. Actually, American media watch closer to implications of this British action.

According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, security in Lashkar Gah has improved dramatically. See the video below.





On July 19, Foreign Secretary William Hague submitted a report to the Parliament, and said that the Afghan National Security Forces responded effectively despite the rise of insurgent attacks in June (“Progress in Afghanistan during June 2011”; FCO News; 19 July, 2011). Secretary Hague and Governor Gulab Mangal of Helmand Province commemorated the transition a significant milestone. Hague also said that Britain would continue to provide military and development assistance for Afghanistan after finishing combat missions by 2015 (“Afghans take the lead in Lashkar Gah security”; FCO News; 20 July, 2011). Janan Mosazai, Spokesman at the Afghan Foreign Ministry, asserted that this is beyond the transfer of security responsibilities, and said, "The whole purpose of this transition process is to ensure, in the long term, that we have a stable, secure, peaceful Afghanistan because that is in the interest of security and stability in the broader region and the wider world." Furthermore, NATO Secretary General Anders Fough Rasmussen said that the transfer would undermine the Taliban’s position as they would be attacking their own countrymen.

However, things do not go as senior officials insist. Afghan people do not trust their government’s capability of maintaining security. Since Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced transition of security responsibility from July in seven areas this March, violence has increased sharply. Britain handed over Lashkar Gah in such an environment (“Lashkar Gah: NATO hands over volatile Afghan city”; BBC News; 20 July, 2011). Unlike more peaceful areas such as Kabul and Bamian, transition in Lashkar Gah is modest and only downtown parts have been returned to the Afghan security authority (“In southern Afghanistan, a modest transition”; Washington Post; July 21, 2011).

As US Senator John McCain said, troop pullout based on calendar rather than the condition in the battlefield is absurd. British withdrawal from volatile Lashkar Gah is modest. The outcome of this handover will have significant implications to the future of Afghan strategy. Also, the United Kingdom has made considerable contribution to wars in the Middle East from Libya to Afghanistan. This is why I call more attention to British handover of Lashkar Gah.