Sorrow, Memory, and the End of the Helmand Campaign

November 4, 2014

As I watched the American, British and NATO flags come down at Camp Leatherneck, marking an end to NATO combat operations in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province, a hollow feeling filled my chest. This reaction surprised me. I have been a critic of the Afghan campaign since I worked out of Main Operating Base Lashkar Gah, affectionately known as Lash, from late 2010 through summer 2011. Lash was my home for most of my time in Afghanistan in my role as a U.S. Army Human Terrain Team Social Scientist, a typical Department of Defense jumble of jargon that basically indicates my job was to help the military – in my case the British and Danish forces then operating in central Helmand – understand the Afghan people. Four months into my tour, I understood that what we were doing in Helmand was all wrong. I could see the campaign was based on several faulty assumptions and that no matter how well we did at the tactical and operational levels, the larger strategic goals of the campaign would remain elusive.

Not long after my return, I argued that the bulk of NATO troops should leave the country by the spring of 2013 with a residual force left behind to keep watch on a much more constrained set of interests than those envisioned by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Now it is the fall of 2014 and my old home in Lash is in Afghan hands, including the patch of dust where I slept in an eight-man tent and the condemned, low-slung concrete buildings where I moved after the tent flooded. NATO operations in this troubled province are over, and I feel sorrowful. Why is that the case, when we never should have deployed to Helmand in such force in the first place?

Endings, no matter their context, are always tinged with a sort of tragedy. The end of NATO combat operations in Helmand is no different. As those flags over Leatherneck lowered for the final time, I was forced to reflect.

This ending carries with it many things that should and do comfort me. No more American, British, or Danish troops will be killed or injured in Helmand for a war that doesn’t merit the sacrifice, nor will their Estonian and Georgian comrades who also fought for the province and ended their mission there earlier this year. Almost twice as many men and women in uniform were killed in Helmand than in the next deadliest province – neighboring Kandahar. Many more were maimed, leaving behind their limbs and sometimes their sanity. We can reasonably hope there will not be one more Western military casualty in Helmand, aside from, perhaps, special operations forces. The United States is overstretched. Its interest in stability in a place like Helmand pales in comparison to demands presented by nihilist drug cartels in Mexico, a rising China, a revanchist Russia and the collapse of large swaths of Syria and Iraq to a jihadist army. Moreover, our very ability to affect lasting change in Helmand was always questionable. One simple fact is sufficient to illustrate the inadequacy of NATO efforts in this troubled province: Helmand is a more dangerous and violent place now than it was before the surge of troops into Afghanistan. Our efforts there were misspent and good men and women paid for it with their lives.

Nevertheless, the end of NATO operations in Helmand is not an end to the war for the people who live there. It is, rather, the beginning of a new and more dangerous phase. Haji Mohammad Hydar, an Afghan farmer in Sangin, recently said to a reporter, “There was war before the foreign troops arrived, there was war while they were here, and there will be war after they leave.” Like the rest of Afghanistan, Helmand has been at war with itself for 36 years, broken only by brief periods of repression. The first was in the late 1990s, under the dictatorial rule of the Taliban. The next lasted a couple of years after the Taliban’s ousting under the chaotic rapaciousness of the Akhundzada clan. The introduction of British forces into Helmand in 2006 to stem a resurgent Taliban and ensure the appropriate conditions for development led, of course, to more strife. By late 2010, a larger, multi-national force composed largely of U.S. Marines surged into the province was able to bring a semblance of stability to its most populated districts. The cost was not low. NATO and Afghan troops died in the hundreds every year. And their success was not complete. Civilians still died violently. The police held on to some of their predatory tendencies and ISAF and the Afghan government were never able to expand their writ throughout the province, but life in Helmand became far less severe than it had been for decades. Still, the populace had greater access to education, transport and medical care than ever before. This period was, as one English comrade put it at the time, the orange slice in the middle of the football match. But this could not endure the withdrawal of foreign troops. Halftime would end and the rough game would resume. I understood, as did many others serving in Helmand at the time, that the province’s myriad “micro-conflicts” would once again come to the fore, creating endless opportunities for the insurgency and drug gangs. Government gains in the countryside paid for in the blood of men and women from six countries, including Afghanistan, would be reversed. And so it goes. NATO operations until then were merely a prolonged and largely unnecessary preface to Helmand’s next phase.

Hydar, the Sangin farmer quoted above, recently explained that with the drawdown of foreign troops, “It is much worse than in the past. Before, you knew where the fighting was and you could avoid it. Now, there are bombs everywhere. We are not safe anywhere.” When I interviewed hundreds of Afghans in Helmand about their sense of the security situation, this was the eventuality most of them feared. While they often resented foreign forces with their large armored vehicles and intrusive raids, Afghans held us in far higher regard than their own police forces and openly hoped we would not withdraw. Foreign forces were not just able to keep the Taliban at bay in Helmand’s most populous districts, but also, by their mere presence, kept a lid on feuding warlords and drug kingpins, many with close ties to the government. As Western forces have left Afghanistan, civilian casualties have reached their highest levels since the Taliban were first defeated in 2001, with 74 percent of those casualties attributed to insurgent forces. And Helmand is the most dangerous place to be a civilian.

This indeed provides reason for sorrow, but I mourned over that eventuality years ago. The bitterness remains in my thoughts and intensifies nearly every time I discuss the war with someone else who has been there. But that is an old emotion, an old wound. It does not explain the pit I felt in my chest when those flags were lowered over Camp Leatherneck last week. That was something new.

It is something far more basic and, to be honest, self-absorbed. Helmand occupies a special place in my heart; a hallowed space in my memory. It was my first and only war. From conversations with my team leader at dusk, coffee in the brigade’s brew room with staff officers, combing the streets of Gereshk with a Danish recce platoon, foot patrols with tankers (oddly enough), constant briefings, trying and failing to keep up with Navy SEAL workouts, racing down dusty roads in open-topped Jackals, endless cups of tea with maliks and farmers, and quiet sodas, conversations and poker games with people like Raymond, George, Oli, Kim, Matt, Ed, Rosie, Fiona, Ewan, Max and John…Helmand is where I came to know the world, my fellow man, myself and the messy realities of all three. I came home three years ago a different man and a part of me never left the river valley, but it now seems as if that part must go, for I no longer have a comrade continuing our fruitless mission in the dusty compounds, the fields of wheat and brilliant poppy flowers, the filthy winding river and the bases of plywood, canvas, gravel and HESCO. I am suddenly without something that is no less intense for my inability to fully understand it. The fields and compounds will remain. The bases have been handed over to Afghan forces and many of them, I suspect, will eventually be abandoned or fall to insurgents. But we are now gone. And that is a good end for some, a tragic beginning for others, and a strange loss for me.


Ryan Evans is editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. He worked in Helmand as a civilian in 2010 and 2011.