It’s been a good fortnight for the Taliban. Nine British soldiers dead in 10 days, hundreds of imprisoned fighters set free in a daring jailbreak and the floundering Afghan government struggling to convince the population that the security they long for is close at hand.
They will be happy, too, that they have probably made the British commander regret telling me three weeks ago that the insurgency was on the verge of defeat.
Power in Afghanistan is all about posture and perception. The Taliban swept through the country in 1996, barely firing a shot, because local warlords saw that the future was with the black turban and did not want to be left behind. What will be the perception now?
First a suicide bomber killed three Paras, and then a well-planned ambush accounted for another two. Tuesday’s bomb attack left a further four soldiers dead – including, in an invaluable publicity coup for the insurgents, Corporal Sarah Bryant, 26, the first female British soldier to die in Afghanistan.
From the safety of their hideouts in Pakistan, the Taliban’s leaders and their al-Qa’eda cronies will be counting the dollars from the opium harvest haul, ready to purchase more men, bombs and bullets as the fighting season begins.
After spending a week on the ground with our commanders in Lashkar Gah, and then a fortnight marching, eating and sleeping alongside the Parachute Regiment, I have heard first-hand the worries of our troops – and their diagnosis of the problem.
They fear that the “war of our generation” is turning into a slog that will suck in more troops, who will require increasing logistical support, which will in turn give the enemy many more targets.
This is because the Taliban’s tactics are changing. For the first two years, we fought pitched battles against an insurgency determined to over-run our undermanned outposts, which often came close to running out of food and ammunition.
The Taliban’s losses were very heavy – in the thousands. But the last fortnight could signal the start of a new approach. Why waste a score of fighters when a suicide bomber or well-placed mine will do?
With more than 8,000 British troops in Helmand, supported by 2,400 Americans, there are plenty of targets to go round.
The Taliban knows the value of public opinion – so important in a counter-insurgency battle – but you sometimes suspect that Whitehall does not. In the opening rounds of the battle for Helmand in 2006, there was no serious public debate about what the mission was. When it became clear that a very serious battle was unfolding, Downing Street banned the press from covering it, in case the public got a whiff that another bloody campaign was unravelling while the insurgency in Iraq was in full cry.
The senior members of the military cannot complain. They were the ones who assured ministers that fighting a war on two fronts was feasible, so long as troop numbers came down in Basra. They also agreed with the politicians that 3,000 men was a suitable number to contain Helmand.
Two years on, we are approaching three times that number, but the increase has gone largely unnoticed, with increments of a few hundred here and there.
Many of our best and brightest military minds – such as Brigadier Ed Butler of the SAS – have called it a day, fed up with poor pay, uncaring civil servants and having to spend too much time away from their families. But there are some very sharp men left, and many of them believe that our greatest enemy is not the Taliban, but our own doctrines and regulations.
The enemy has been forced to adapt to survive. A full-frontal assault on allied positions will fail: indeed, firing anything more than a couple of mortar rounds will attract a vicious hail of retaliatory fire.
So when he hears an Apache attack helicopter approaching, or sees a jet overhead, he no longer stands and fights, but drops his weapon and melts away, no longer a legitimate target. He knows the rules: if you are not carrying a weapon, you cannot be killed. And time is on your side.
Yes, the British might enter a district for a few weeks, but when they leave, the Taliban return, meting out brutal punishment to anyone who has co-operated with the foreigners. And the amount of force needed to take these towns and overwhelm the Taliban makes our own troops less nimble, thereby absorbing manpower, supplies and precious helicopter hours.
“The problem,” says one officer, “is that we are focusing on protective mobility. We are definitely going down the road the Russians went in the Eighties, with over-reliance on massive armoured vehicles.”
The debate is starting on the ground because soldiers are frustrated that they can march their hearts out all day to track the enemy, only to be blown up by a mine. They query how a lumbering convoy of 100 armoured vehicles can ever surprise an enemy who knows every rock and cave in his own back yard. The time has come, suggest some, to fight the way the enemy fights – but smarter.
In the Rhodesian insurgency, tiny units called fire forces, working in groups of four or eight, would drop into enemy territory by parachute or helicopter, unheard and unseen.
With the aid of local trackers, they remained concealed for days, watching the enemy’s movements and waiting patiently for the optimum time to strike. Again and again the guerrillas were horrified as their safety cordon unravelled, with colleagues falling dead around them.
By contrast, our strategy is static, based on bases in fixed locations. Troops leave them to go on patrol in full view of the enemy – which had fatal consequences this month. “It’s bloody hard to deceive the enemy with a column of ground movement that can be picked up 500 metres beyond the base,” says one veteran. “The effect of four helicopters disgorging 100 soldiers from an unexpected direction would have a huge impact, and would lead to a reduction in the opportunities to blow us up with mines.”
Partly, the problem is the same risk-averse culture that enveloped our campaign in Basra, where the highest priority, to which everything else was subordinated, was avoiding British deaths.
At the moment, regular troops are only allowed to move around in numbers considerably larger than the small groups of the Rhodesian campaign. Even snipers, whose pricey new long-range rifles could be a massive asset, are not allowed to go out with just a spotter, but have to be part of more unwieldy units.
For some soldiers, the excuses about excessive danger wear thin, given the huge support available from air and artillery if things go sour. “At times,” one told me wearily, “I am waiting for someone to mention the Health and Safety Executive.”
However, the single greatest symbol of what is going wrong with our campaign is the lack of helicopters. At some point a senior commander is going to have to find the courage to mortgage his career and say in public what so many have said to me in private – that we are losing lives needlessly because there are not enough.
The eight RAF Chinooks are being flown relentlessly, and fatigue must be setting in. The Ministry of Defence says that the answer is to fly them for even more hours per month, but that’s a stupid argument: we need more airframes, more spare parts and more pilots.
This is a refrain that occurs again and again in conversations with senior officers and seasoned NCOs. “Helicopters would put you in places where vehicles cannot,” says one. Another says wistfully: “If I could get my hands on four Chinooks for two whole days…”
The reason why the US Marines were so successful in southern Helmand this spring was because they were able to land 600 troops in one lift in one night. In the two weeks I was with them, the Paras could only muster one air assault of two helicopters that had to go in three lifts, hugely increasing the risk of the enemy assembling an anti-aircraft team to attack them.
Then, as we pushed further into Taliban territory, we were forced to travel on foot alongside vehicles, because there were no helicopters available. The Taliban probably just laughed and walked off into the next valley.
Even when we detained a suspected roadside bomber – after slogging through the desert for hours – we almost had to release him because there was no helicopter to take him back to a legal holding facility for three days – the maximum detention time is four days.
The MoD knows that what we have is not enough, and has done for years. But the bean counters have never listened. “If the Government really cared about troops, they would pull their fingers out and get the resources out here,” says one soldier.
We can win in Afghanistan, but to do so we will have to find the courage and resourcefulness shown by the enemy – not to mention a few of those long-prayed-for Chinooks.