Helmand: Six Years On From the First Military Death…And What?

by Richard Lutz


In June 2006, Captain James Phillipson, died while rescuing ambushed colleagues in Helmand Province.

He was Britain’s first combat casualty in that bleak part of Afghanistan.

Today UK forces are still there, protecting, patrolling and fighting in this benighted patch of earth.

And last week, The Ministry of Defence had the appalling job of telling two more families that two more had been killed.

They died from mortar fire. Others had been killed by roadside bombs, sniper fire, suicide bombs, road accidents, friendly fire and, even, suicide.

Of course, it is not just the military which is in the firing line. Two days ago, NATO had to admit that ‘an errant’ missile attack killed a Helmand mother and her five children when technology went wrong.

The two recent military deaths means 412 soldiers have died in Afghanistan. And overwhelmingly, the majority have died in Helmand. It makes for reading that will chill the blood in you. It makes for reading that will chill the blood of  readers of military history in generations to come.

It has been six years of futile occupation and fighting by soldiers who must wonder how they are ‘protecting freedom’ or destroying the murderous Al Queda when they are still in  the same sandy godforsaken patch of  earth 71 months after Captain Phillipson was killed.

The Helmand campaign, specifically, is a disaster. In two years time, UK troops will leave Afghanistan and then you can only surmise what will happen in this province. The Taliban, cutthroat cousins of the terrorists, will descend and take over villages and ground and wreak revenge on any families that showed loyalty, friendship or outward faith in NATO forces. It will be a bloody nasty nightmare.

Helmand will, sadly, continue to bleed. For little reason except the US and the UK cannot retreat or, worse, be seen to retreat.

Later this month, a NATO summit in Chicago will rubber stamp plans to pull most combat troops out of Afghanistan, while pledging to continue training Afghan forces and provide long-term development aid. This decision will in no way help Helmand nor its embattled people just as little has helped them  six years ago when Capt Phillipson died.

Recently, news reports revealed that Matt Cavanagh, at one point a senior advisor to Gordon Brown and Des Browne, has given an insider’s account of Whitehall machinations as the Blair government was about to send the first deployment of 3,000 soldiers into Helmand in early 2006.

Writing in the RUSI journal, which examines military policy, he says that civil servants and generals gathered around the idea “that the deployment was going to happen one way or another, so we might as well get on with it”.

Cavanagh writes that actual knowledge of the realities of Helmand was extremely limited among the decision-makers in Whitehall at the time.

Worse still, news reports said, what relevant knowledge did exist inside the system was often wasted. The military as well as politicians relied too heavily on the analogy with Northern Ireland and neglected the lessons of Iraq.

This bungling head in the sand approach has led to so many British deaths and untold civilian horrors in Helmand today.

In two years time, UK and US troops will be out of Afghanistan, out of Helmand. But the bitter memories and the stain of a ridiculous campaign will remain.