Page last updated at 09:56 GMT, Monday, 3 November 2008

Three bloody summers in Afghanistan

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Three summers ago, Britain's war in Afghanistan began in earnest when 3,300 troops set up camp on a small, remote patch of desert in a little-known place called Helmand.

Some of the fiercest fighting has been in Helmand province

It's now a name most associate with war - a place where more than 100 British troops have died - and where efforts to bring stability and defeat a fierce insurgency have so far failed.

Some say there aren't enough troops, others say there are too many, and even commanders now admit this war won't be won by military force alone.

Based in Kabul, I have followed British troops over the last three years, and before leaving my posting in Afghanistan, went on one final trip to Helmand to try and answer the question of whether this mission is worthwhile.

In April 2006 it was sold, politically, as a peace-building mission.

"We'd be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing one shot," the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, announced in Kabul.

But the following day the commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Brigadier Ed Butler gave another insight: "The greatest danger is we know very little about Helmand province, so it is a lack of information that will be the greatest challenge."

Just a few months later, troops were fighting for their lives, defending small isolated bases from wave after wave of attacks, dropping bombs on their doorsteps to keep insurgents at bay.

Since then, the nature of the fighting has changed, but the violence has continued.

Soldiers praying for fallen colleagues in Lashkar Gah
2008 has been the bloodiest year yet for coalition troops

We experienced first hand the violence again this year - a third bloody summer for British forces in Helmand and at a forward base on the fringes of the town of Sangin.

We were met by incoming fire, as rockets crashed down close to the camp and British forces scrambled to return fire.

The next day, out on patrol, troops were dropping mortar bombs just ahead of their own positions as the Taleban moved forward into battle.

One mortar fell short through some technical fault and a soldier was injured, and the troops scrambled back to base with the insurgents in hot pursuit.

The next day they did it all over again, and on that occasion a 24-year-old dog handler was killed.

Since 2001 more than 120 British servicemen and women have died in Afghanistan.

Finding a way to win

The Taleban have lost many more men in the fighting, among them key commanders. They may wear flip-flops and fight a guerrilla war with old-fashioned weapons, but they are still a force capable of taking on the world's finest armies and not losing.

The definition of "winning" or "losing" is vitally important when it comes to what British and other international forces want to achieve in Afghanistan.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who commanded British forces in Helmand this summer, told Panorama: "There is no exclusively military solution to the nature of the insurgency in Afghanistan."

Power turbine being moved to Kajaki dam
This power turbine will help provide electricity for more than a million

It's become clear over the months and years that this counter-insurgency campaign can't be won by fighting alone.

What then are the options for troops who are taking on a force prepared to die in battle, to blow themselves up in suicide attacks, and to plant roadside bombs in an effort to kill international and Afghan soldiers?

British forces came here to stop Afghanistan from again becoming the haven for al-Qaeda it was when the Twin Towers were hit on 9/11.

Troops are supporting the Afghan government, helping them to bring peace and prosperity and at the same time trying to tackle the huge problem of opium production, the raw material for most of the heroin on Britain's streets.

It has meant fighting to bring enough security to allow civilian experts to bring development projects to the people and better government to their town halls.

The strategy is to persuade Afghan people their lives will be better in a stable, secure, democratic Afghanistan.

This year more than 20m ($32m) will be spent on development projects in Helmand, including a river scheme which will bring irrigation water to 20,000 people and schools, clinics and wells.

Helmand map

However money has also been spent on a 300,000 road that, so far, goes nowhere, and a 400,000 park which few people use as security is so bad.

We met farmers and businessmen who laughed at the idea there was security in the towns and villages across much of Helmand.

People's opinions of the international efforts to help their country have changed over the past seven years.

In 2001 after the Taleban were forced from power, optimism was overflowing as first a new democratic constitution, then a president, then a parliament all took up office.

Millions of Afghans, living in exile after nearly 30 years of war, headed home with high hopes that finally their country was on track.

Millions of girls went to school, billions of dollars arrived in aid and the West felt confident it could change regimes and stabilise countries.

The battle for democracy

Hamid Karzai
President Karzai questions Britain's tactics in Helmand
But this is Afghanistan: a fiercely tribal, staunchly Islamic, traditional society where warlords and drug barons, human rights abusers and criminals held sway amid the chaos and gained power as the Taleban fled.

Afghans were disappointed as the West failed to meet the expectations or bring the basics such as security and justice, but they now put up with the foreign involvement knowing it would be civil war if they left.

The Afghan government is struggling to keep a hold as the situation is gradually deteriorating.

President Hamid Karzai believes the British in Helmand have taken the wrong approach.

"The problem in the West was they felt they could copy in a day a system of administration and management which has been practiced in your country for more than a century," he told Panorama.

The troop presence continues and more US forces will soon be deployed to Afghanistan, an important and strategic country wedged between Iran and an increasingly chaotic Pakistan.

Can the multinational forces "win" in Afghanistan? Only if winning means staying and not "losing" long enough for Afghanistan to shape a stable future.

However, with the insurgency filtering into the vacuum left by poor governance and security, time is on nobody's side but the Taleban.

Panorama: Three Bloody Summers, will be broadcast Monday 3 November at 8.30pm on BBC One.

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Three Bloody Summers
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