The ‘unstoppable’ peace process in Nad ‘Ali

As Nad ‘Ali looks to a brighter future, Tris­tan Kel­ly reports from the for­mer Tal­iban strong­hold.

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Troops from B Com­pa­ny, 2nd Bat­tal­ion The Roy­al Gurkha Rifles, stop to chat with some locals from Shin Kalay [Pic­ture: Crown Copyright/MOD 2011]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

With a reduc­tion in vio­lence of 86 per cent com­pared to 2010, the peo­ple who live in Nad ‘Ali dis­trict, an area once renowned for being a hotbed of the Tal­iban insur­gency, are enjoy­ing unprece­dent­ed lev­els of secu­ri­ty.

And now, Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai has announced that the area, which is to the west of Lashkar Gah in Hel­mand province and with­in the British area of oper­a­tions, will be among the sec­ond tranche of areas across the coun­try to begin for­mal trans­fer to Afghan secu­ri­ty con­trol.

How­ev­er, today’s rel­a­tive secu­ri­ty has been hard fought and some years in the mak­ing. British and oth­er ISAF forces first entered the region in 2006.

Work soon began to dis­rupt and dis­lodge the Tal­iban from the region and in Decem­ber 2008 a major oper­a­tion — named SOND CHARA — was launched by British, Dan­ish, Eston­ian and Afghan forces to clear insur­gents from the dis­trict cen­tre.

With two patrol bases quick­ly estab­lished, the oper­a­tion was hailed a suc­cess and allowed ISAF and Afghan forces to move out from pock­ets of secu­ri­ty to reas­sure the local pop­u­la­tion and offer a plat­form for sta­bil­i­sa­tion.

This foothold was expand­ed over time and cul­mi­nat­ed in Oper­a­tion MOSHTARAK in Feb­ru­ary 2010. Mean­ing ‘togeth­er’ in Dari, Op MOSHTARAK was the largest counter-insur­gency oper­a­tion launched by ISAF forces since enter­ing Afghanistan in 2001.

It involved some 15,000 ISAF troops from the UK, the US, Den­mark, Esto­nia and Cana­da, as well as large num­bers of Afghan troops.

The word ‘moshtarak’ under­lined the key fea­ture of the oper­a­tion — the unprece­dent­ed and suc­cess­ful involve­ment of Afghan forces, includ­ing mem­bers of the Afghan Nation­al Army, Afghan Nation­al Police, Afghan Bor­der Police and Afghan Nation­al Civ­il Order Police.

Speak­ing on the eve of the oper­a­tion, Brigadier James Cow­an, the then Com­man­der of Task Force Hel­mand, said:

“I can think of no bet­ter name to describe this ven­ture. For we are in this togeth­er: we have planned it togeth­er, we will fight it togeth­er, we will see it through togeth­er.”

Anoth­er key fea­ture of the oper­a­tional plan was ‘see­ing it through’ and the Provin­cial Recon­struc­tion Team and Afghan gov­ern­ment depart­ments were involved from the very begin­ning in bring­ing gov­er­nance to the region as soon as the insur­gents had been dri­ven out:

“We’ve got a gov­ern­ment in a box, ready to roll in,” said US Gen­er­al Stan­ley McChrys­tal, ISAF com­man­der at the time.

Jump­ing ahead 18 months and progress in Nad ‘Ali has been stark, with the reduc­tion in vio­lence tak­ing some by sur­prise. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true in the south­ern half of the dis­trict, around the dis­trict cen­tre.

Speak­ing at Patrol Base Chili in south­ern Nad ‘Ali, towards the end of his tour in Sep­tem­ber 2011, Major Jamie Mur­ray, Offi­cer Com­mand­ing B Com­pa­ny, 2nd Bat­tal­ion The Roy­al Gurkha Rifles (2 RGR), whose area of oper­a­tions cov­ered approx­i­mate­ly 25,000 of Nad ‘Ali’s pop­u­la­tion of 75,000–100,000, tells me just how qui­et this tour has been:

“The sum­mer fight­ing sea­son has been very much sup­pressed and the con­di­tions are set for an infor­mal tran­si­tion,” he said, adding that sig­nif­i­cant events, such as IED finds and con­tacts with the Tal­iban, were down 40 per cent on the pre­vi­ous HERRICK.

And the Tal­iban, accord­ing to the Major, were becom­ing ‘des­per­ate’, and with that the qual­i­ty of the ene­my had reduced. He cit­ed a recent inci­dent where a sui­cide bomber had self-det­o­nat­ed in a field a long way from his tar­get in the dis­trict cen­tre as a key exam­ple.

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The Nad ‘Ali and Lashkar Gah dis­tricts of Hel­mand province [Pic­ture: via MOD]
Source: Min­istry of Defence, UK
Click to enlarge

Major Mur­ray adds that the focus of this tour has been much more on inter­ac­tion with local Afghans and show­ing them the ben­e­fits of Afghan gov­ern­ment con­trol. He also says that there has been a dra­mat­ic shift in the atti­tude of local Afghans since 2 RGR’s pre­vi­ous tour in 2009:

“We have con­duct­ed 75 shuras so far and each one is con­vivial,” Major Mur­ray said.

“The locals are will­ing to pro­vide us with infor­ma­tion not just about secu­ri­ty but about their lives in gen­er­al — a year ago that shu­ra would have been entire­ly about secu­ri­ty and things to do with life and death.

“Now Afghan locals are telling us where bad things are hap­pen­ing, where IEDs are being laid. We now have well over 25,000 counter insur­gents in this area, and that is the local peo­ple who are coun­ter­ing the insur­gency.”

The next day I join a rou­tine joint 2 RGR and Afghan Nation­al Civ­il Order Police patrol into the near­by vil­lage of Shin Kalay, whose streets and recent­ly restored mosque are buzzing with activ­i­ty.