Page last updated at 15:29 GMT, Friday, 13 March 2009

Helmand day three - Inches and plate spinning

Lt Col Chalmers and district governor

In the third entry of his diary from Afghanistan's Helmand province, the BBC's Ian Pannell juggles the astonishing array of challenges facing UK soldiers.

Lieutenant Colonel Doug Chalmers admits he is a bit too fond of analogies.

That is usually the precursor to launching into a range of verbal parallels, sometimes with dots and lines drawn in the sand.

The two analogies that are used most on Patrol Base Argyll are "inches" and "plate spinning".

They neatly sum up the range and restrictions of the British military campaign in Helmand.

"Inches are about the will of the people and getting them to trust and believe in us," says Col Chalmers.

There is a lot of focus on the issue of territory, how much of it coalition forces can take and hold.

But the commander of the Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment says "ground is relatively easy to take, the hard bit is holding it and holding the will of the people in it".

Those are the inches he deals with on a daily basis: the good inches, the bad ones, the easy inches and the hard ones.

Moving walls

Plate spinning is the range of tasks the CO (Commanding Officer) has to deal with.

We went with him to a shura (meeting) with the local police, army chiefs and the district governor, Habibullah. The minutiae of the discussion are astonishing.

One of the main achievements of the shura was getting the police chief to agree to abandon his temporary breeze-block office that he had built on top of the governor's compound

Forget maps and grand strategies, moving tanks across the sand and model infantrymen into position.

This is about where to build compound walls, moving a family from a house, who has a kitchen and who doesn't.

One of the main achievements of the shura was getting the police chief to agree to abandon his temporary breeze-block office that he had built on top of the governor's compound.

One of those present declares it a success, "sitting in a room not disagreeing". There are times when even an inch feels like a mile.

Later, in the operations room at Argyll, Col Chalmers has to brief the officers on casualties over the last day.

One serious head wound, another shot through the cheek, another through the leg and a patrol base that is under sustained attack.

This is the plate spinning; daily threats and patrols, operations with the Afghan army, trying to bring a discredited police force back on line, vehicles in need of repair, and disgruntled locals with trampled crops.

Of course there are also the deliberate operations to take on the Taleban and dominate the ground.

That is another plate that continues to spin throughout but these kinds of missions are far less common than you might imagine.

Manpower required

The colonel is adamant the inches and plate-spinning are essential to making a lasting difference in Helmand: in essence to bring the local population on side and allow the government to start to do its job.

Lt Col Chalmers
Col Chalmers says more resources are required to go the next couple of yards

It is impossible to know whether this tactic will work because it will have to be tried and tested over many years before a useful conclusion can be reached, and it is far from clear that there is the political will to support that.

And the British military probably do not have the manpower or the resources to perform this range of work on a wide-enough scale to turn the direction of the conflict in Helmand.

Enter the Americans with thousands of troops and the kind of resources that the rest of Nato can only dream of.

They will substantially alter the pace and the range of this campaign.

There will be less talk of inches and plate spinning and more on defeating the Taleban, on what has become the US counter-insurgency mantra of "clear, hold, build".

Col Chalmers is adamant the British have done an excellent job of getting to where they have but he acknowledges we are probably entering a new era.

"There are large parts of Helmand which we've still yet to get in to and the extra, if you call it a surge or reinforcement or the re-allocation of theatre assets to go the next bit of ground, the next couple of yards is the sensible campaign procedure."

The Helmand diary is reported on jointly by Ian Pannell and John Boon

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