Today, the British handed over Sangin province in Afghanistan to the Americans. The BBC has been portraying it as a British defeat and withdrawal and there have been many opinions on whether this is true. From a surprising source, though, one commentator insists that the 5 year operation has been a success.
In 2006, Britain's effectiveness in Helmand and Sangin was more than debatable. Isolated and sparsely populated, Sangin was not a priority when the overall number of Nato forces in Helmand was absurdly low. But the situation there has improved markedly over the last year, and especially in the last few months, and the pressure ISAF forces in Sangin have absorbed has allowed more rapid progress to be made in central Helmand, which is more densely populated. It took the better part of four years to get the process moving, but British forces finally succeeded in getting more of the local population to believe in – and work with – the Afghan government. How?
First, the continued presence of British troops in the district illustrated the fallacy of the Taliban's propaganda. Locals realised that UK forces were not out to murder them or take their land, but there to help. Second, the new governor Mohammed Sharif – who is literate and trusted by the population – has served as a legitimate interlocutor. British forces created the space for Sharif to govern effectively. In return, the locals have refused to blindly support the Taliban. Instead, they are engaged in a genuine dialogue with the Afghan government about what public services are required and how to deliver and oversee them. This, over and above any tactical military advantage, is surely the basis for any sustainable reconciliation.
One tangible result is that the Taliban have had to moderate their behaviour and make it easier for people to obtain seeds and irrigation from central government – which neither the Taliban nor the major narcotics barons had the interest or capacity to provide. This moderation is apparent in a revised code of conduct issued by the Quetta Shura around 18 months ago. People no longer support the brutality of the Taliban and have higher expectations of those who seek to govern them, which is why the Taliban shadow governor has been replaced a few times in the last year. The Taliban are still present, but they are no longer conducting business as usual.
The presence of the British in Helmand has been a constant thorn in the side of the Taliban. The region is extremely important for the cultivation and production of narcotics and the overall weakness of our presence there encouraged the Taliban to continue their onslaught. The paradox of this, however, is that it enabled more populous, central regions of Afghanistan to develop with less insecurity. The result is that places like Lashkah Gah and Nad Ali are much more likely to be handed over to Afghans in the near future.