read the whole thing

How did the British Army decide to fight the Helmand campaign as it did? Chatham House has a fascinating paper by Anthony King on the development of the campaign, the abandonment of the original plan, and the processes of decision-making that led the British to fight as they did. The original plan, it turns out, was very different to the implementation – quite a few observers in the summer of 2006 tended to think that the infamous “platoon houses”, outposts in northern Helmand held by small groups of Paras, were an ill-thought out effort to implement a counterinsurgency strategy and live among the people. If they had been, this quickly became impossible due to constant and intense fighting with the Taliban just to hang on.

But it seems that, whatever the aim of this deployment, it was a major departure from the original plan.

The plan identified the area around Lashkar Gar, the provincial capital, and Gereshk as vital. This area was defined as an Afghan Development Zone on which British inter-agency efforts would be focused. DFID and FCO would work within this area,
improving living conditions and governance. As part of this plan, the Helmand Task Force was ordered to establish a British centre of operations at Camp Bastion and to secure a triangle of territory between that base, Lashkar Gar and Gereshk.

The military plan for Helmand developed by 16 Air Assault Brigade involved two fundamental elements. In order to secure the Lashkar Gar–Bastion–Gereshk triangle, one company from 3 PARA would be deployed to Forward Operating
Base Price near Gereshk. The other companies would be used either to secure areas for the provincial reconstruction team or to conduct raids against areas in which ‘insurgents/criminals’ were known to operate.11 With 3,500 troops, of
which only 600 were infantry, the plan for Herrick 4 was ambitious, as Stuart Tootal, the commanding officer of 3 PARA, recognized: ‘Even if our operations could be limited to the region around Lashkar Gar and Gereshk as we planned,
it was still a huge area for the limited number of troops that I would have at my disposal.”

But as it turned out, there was immediate pressure from Afghan politicians to drop this plan and to send soldiers much further north, on the basis that the Taliban were about to overrun various places where there was meant to be some sort of Afghan government presence.

British troops were quickly deflected from their officially designated task of securing the Lashkar Gar triangle. Almost immediately upon deploying to Helmand in April 2006, the commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, Brigadier Ed Butler, came under political pressure from the incumbent governor of Helmand, Mohammed Daoud. Daoud claimed that various settlements were about to fall to the Taleban, and would do so if the British did not deploy immediately. As a result, Brigadier
Butler deployed his already meagre forces across Helmand province from Garmsir in the south to Musa Qala in the north. In all, the battlegroup spread itself across seven major positions, about 600 square miles of difficult terrain.

According to Antonio Giustozzi, what was happening was that the Quetta Taliban leadership was trying to move to the third phase of the classic revolutionary war strategy and build up a force there to attack Lashkar Gah and Kandahar in the hope this would lead to a general collapse of the state, and northern Helmand was on the main infiltration route from Pakistan via the Ghilzai tribe’s territory – but nobody on the Allied side knew this.

The upshot was a string of vicious localised battles around the outposts; over time, they became surrounded by a depopulated war zone of ruins, wrecked by Allied firepower, itself surrounded by the enemy. There were nowhere near enough soldiers to go out and pursue them, or to expand the defences to include the whole local area. The British were isolated from the population by their own close air support and fixed in place by their isolation from their own forces.

The FOBs formed an archipelago of partially secure islands whose small forces were unable to suppress Taleban activity beyond a narrow strip of territory: ‘The soldiers might push the Taliban back a kilometre or two. In the process they might uncover a small-arms cache or a bunker which they would then blow. But they did not stay to hold the ground.
They trekked back to base and the Taliban crept in again’.

This quote refers to the situation in April, 2008 – even though the summer fighting of 2006 was recognised as a disaster for the campaign, surprisingly little had changed.

King’s key point is that in the light, or perhaps the darkness, of the lack of information about the Taliban in Helmand, it’s very hard to say what the British leaders were trying to do. It wasn’t counterinsurgency – even they admit that. It wasn’t an effort to stop the Taliban offensive in its tracks with a spoiling attack, because nobody outside the Taliban knew about it at the time. It wasn’t that nobody considered any alternatives.

There was little pressure from NATO or ISAF itself for the British to disperse. General
Richards, commander of ISAF at the time, was actively opposed to the platoon house strategy although he did not have direct command of Helmand until 31 July 2006. Major-General Ben Freakley, who was commanding coalition forces in the south, was vehemently opposed to the platoon house strategy. Decisively, instead of dispersing across the province, it would have been possible for 16 Air Assault Brigade and, to a lesser extent, its successors to concentrate as planned on the Bastion–Lashkar Gar–Gereshk triangle, notwithstanding the evident pressure which Governor Daoud applied on Ed Butler.

In fact, he argues that there wasn’t really a rationale – instead, the decisions were guided by culture, habits of mind, the tendency to apply skills learned in other contexts, and bureaucratic factors.

Thus, British commanders like Stuart Tootal knew full well that they did not have the forces to secure Helmand and that therefore dispersal was likely to be counterproductive in the long term. However, ingrained with a professional
imperative to act, it was as impossible for 16 Air Assault to refuse Daoud in 2006 as it was for subsequent commanders not to engage in recurrent offensive operations, even though they knew they could not hope to secure the areas they were seeking
to clear. The professional self-definition of the British officer corps made tactical inactivity impossible for them….

It is noticeable that each brigade tour of Helmand has sought to define itself by a major operation: 16 Brigade ‘broke in’, 3 Commando Brigade retook Sangin, 12 Brigade ‘mowed the grass’, 52 Brigade retook Musa Qala, 16 Brigade transported the turbine to Kajaki, 3 Commando Brigade seized Nad-e-Ali and now 19 Brigade have taken Babaji. Until the final two rotations
there was very little continuity between the tours

There’s something incredibly grim about this list of flags in the map. And that turbine still hasn’t been installed, because the cement hasn’t got there yet.

Much of this is an example of one of the key themes in the history of the British empire – the tension between Whitehall and the Man on the Spot. Better communications were never the answer. Lord Milner in South Africa complained bitterly of the “tyranny of the telegraph”, but it cut both ways – the telegraph helped him indulge in alarmism and self publicity as much as it helped the Government control him. Here’s an example.

On 19 June 2006, Brigadier Butler warned Stuart Tootal that Sangin was about to fall and gave Tootal 90 minutes to decide whether to deploy or not. Tootal and his tactical headquarters ‘quickly rehashed the pros and cons’. Tootal recognized that his troops ‘were here to support the government of Afghanistan’. However, the decisive impetus for insertion was regimental, as Tootal himself confessed: ‘Finally we were Paras and being asked to do difficult and risky things was what we were meant to be about.’ Tootal confirmed that he was ready to deploy 20 minutes after Ed Butler’s initial communication. Deployed for a 24-hour operation, A Company were finally extracted in early July, but the battlegroup remained besieged in Sangin until the end of the tour.

Whatever had been said or thought in London, Kabul, Brunssum, Brussels, and Washington, this was the defining decision. We might well wonder what else it defined.

King also discusses what might have defined that decision. He argues that a major, unspoken factor in the whole decision to go to Helmand was the Army’s fear that a post-Iraq reckoning would result in its budget being slashed. For the MOD more broadly, a similar factor may have been the experience of failure in Iraq and a desire to demonstrate continued willingness to support the US.

The availability of the newly acquired Apache helicopters played its own special role. Having bought them and made the investments necessary to put them in service, the bureaucratic momentum meant they would be used the next time the Army was called on, which meant that the Airborne side of the Army would be called on. That had consequences for the way they would fight, too – King quotes some truly startling remarks from Lieutenant-Colonel Tootal.

‘I also made the point that running out of supplies when surrounded was part of our history. When I talked of what conditions must have been like for paratroopers who held the bridge at Arnhem for nine days against ferocious German assaults, having only planned to hold it for two, in 1944, people got the point that I was making.’

Further, the Apache’s capabilities made it possible to survive the plan as amended. At one point in 2008, there were only 50 British soldiers in Lashkar Gah, supposedly the strategic centre of the entire war – unsurprisingly, the Taliban chose that night to attack, and only the helicopters prevented them from overrunning the place.

King concludes by suggesting that there is still scope to change course, and that the Army is now turning back to the original plan. He argues that, as preparing for a handover to the Afghan government becomes more important, some of the culture issues will start to work the other way; using more Special Forces as advisors, for example, will tend to bring their prestige to a task that has been seen as secondary to the goal of finding a decisive battle with the Taliban.

If you’re after some crumbs of optimism, this could be one – Hezb i-Islami cooperating with ISAF, which if true argues that the Pakistanis mean it about supporting a political solution. Efforts at forming an anti-Taliban firqat are on. Ackerman calls it a

a hodgepodge of improvisation that manages to keep the structure from totally falling apart in the near-term

. I’d take that.

Anyway, read the whole thing.


  1. If the people in charge think Arnhem was a victory, that would explain a great deal.

  2. ajay

    Well, yes. Arnhem showed that the Paras could fight incredibly well for far longer against far tougher opposition than anyone expected, but Tootal notably didn’t say “I also made the point that running out of supplies when surrounded and then being overrun and destroyed was part of our history”. If you think that Arnhem’s the sort of battle you ought to be fighting, UR DOIN IT RONG.




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