In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields. Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, Canadian Army, 1915
The British Army is quitting Helmand, the Afghan poppy-growing province for which it was given responsibility in the context of the overall aim in Afghanistan, defined by the Ministry of Defense as "to develop a self-sustaining, stable and democratic Afghanistan". And the province is collapsing into chaos. I'm not at all surprised.
In April 2006, when the then prime minister Tony Blair decided to send 3,300 troops to Afghanistan, his defense minister, John Reid, stated mystically that "Of course, our mission is not counter-terrorism, but one of the tasks that we may have to accomplish in order to achieve our strategic mission will be to defend our own troops and the people we are here to defend and to pre-empt, on occasion, terrorist attacks on us."
In a 2006 meeting with Pakistan's then director general of Inter Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Kayani (who later became Chief of Army Staff and retired last year after six years in the post), he told me the British could not possibly establish order in Helmand and gave detailed reasons why they would be unsuccessful, basing much of his explanation on the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan but also reflecting on Britain's past disastrous forays into that unhappy land.
His briefing was impressive and depressing: first, because it was obvious that Pakistan expected British forces to fail to defeat insurgents in Helmand, and second because he said that Britain should not count on Pakistan to help it along the Helmand-Balochistan border. "Why should we do that?" he asked.
Although agreeing with him, I had a difficulty. I had been given a confidential briefing by the most senior Intelligence officer in Pakistan, a civilized man whom I respected and with whom I had established a certain rapport. But I had served in uniform for a long time and considered that such service demanded rather deeper loyalty. So I contacted an acquaintance in the British High Commission in Islamabad and told him the story, and a scheduled visit to Afghanistan by the newly appointed chief of defense staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, was extended to Pakistan. He spoke with the then president, General Pervez Musharraf, who was placatory and said the usual things and did nothing.
After Musharraf attended the Royal College of Defense Studies in London (where he did well and was thought by the British and, curiously, by the Americans to be pro-British), he was appointed director general military operations in the army's general headquarters, and while dining in our house in Islamabad in 1990 made it clear that his regard for the British was not without reservations.
It seemed that these continued to be held, because on one of the occasions on which I called on him in the years after he became president, which appointment he assumed after his bloodless and widely welcomed military coup in 1999, he had "just got rid of" the British high commissioner, who, he said, was bothersome (or words to that effect). All was not well between Britain and Pakistan, and there was no reason why relations should have been cordial because the UK had tilted towards India, where commercial prospects beckoned.
Musharraf was a seasoned soldier and could not understand why Britain did not commit what he considered to be "enough" troops to Helmand. It's difficult to fault this judgement, because in the dismal Afghan war of 2001-14 the largest number of British troops deployed in the province was a mere 9,500 in a hotchpotch of units and sub-units.
The National Army Museum in London states that, "In April 2006 half the British Army's rapid reaction force, 16 Air Assault Brigade, was sent south to Afghanistan's former Taliban heartland, Helmand Province. They were tasked with establishing security to allow reconstruction, the extension of central political control and the containment of the opium trade."
It didn't work, and when it became obvious that they could not possibly control the Helmand area of operations the British had to be reinforced by thousands of American marines. It wasn't the fault of Britain's soldiers. Their courage has been beyond praise. But to achieve the aims they were given they should have numbered at least 50,000. (At the end of a talk I gave at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2006 I was asked how many troops I considered would be necessary to achieve foreign objectives in Afghanistan and replied "half a million". There were titters round the room, led by a fresh-faced Ministry of Defense public relations person who was obviously a military expert.)
Further, the command arrangements of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were convoluted to the point of farce. Had a student at any military staff college in the world been tasked to design a command chain for such circumstances and proposed what was actually adopted in Afghanistan he would have been the well-deserved target of raucous scorn.
British casualties mounted over the years, and the Helmand battlefield became a see-saw of Taliban and ISAF ascendancy. In the end, without achievement of any of the aims of establishing security, extending political control or containing the opium trade, it was decided that foreign forces should leave Afghanistan. They are handing over to the Afghan army, which last year had 30,000 deserters in a claimed total force of 195,000. In February, a BBC reporter noted that "The main highway is not safe enough. It is an irony that is not lost on Helmand residents that the splendid tarmac roads built by coalition forces are so perilous."
Poppies continue to be grown in profusion, producing heroin that is exported in vastly greater quantities than ever before; much of it goes through Pakistan, which has enough problems of its own without having to take on the Helmand-based (and well-armed and politically well-connected) drug gangs, and has no reason to thank Britain for its disastrous military foray into Afghanistan's main poppy-producing province.
Two years ago, I was given a day-long briefing about operations in Helmand by the commanding officer and officers of an infantry battalion that had recently served there. It was impressive and it was obvious they were high-quality leaders.
The presentations were entirely positive - it seemed there were no real problems in Afghanistan - and my attempts to question what they considered to be their achievements were treated with amused, if polite, even deferential, condescension. They assured me that things had changed since ancient days when I saw service last century in Cyprus, Borneo and Vietnam in the British and Australian armies.
But some things have not changed: 448 members of the British armed forces have died in Afghanistan, some 400 of them killed in action. Nobody knows how many hundreds have been maimed or damaged, physically and mentally. Soldiers suffer and die when politicians order them to fight. But for what did they fight and die in Helmand?
In Helmand's fields the poppies blow
Between the craters, row on row,
That mark the bedlam; in the sky
The drones, still whistling, blitzing, fly
Scarce heard amid the screams below.
We are the Maimed and Dead. Short days
Ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, but suffered hell
In Helmand's fields.
We are limbless, mentally
Disturbed, deserted and forgot
By most save army charities.
You've broken faith with those who died
And none of you should sleep,
Though poppies grow
In Helmand's fields.
Brian Cloughley is a former soldier who writes on military and political affairs, mainly concerning the sub-continent. The fourth edition of his book A History of the Pakistan Army is to be published next month.