UK leaves its Helmand project – like its roads, clinics and bridges – unfinished

Britain’s eight-year mission to transform an impoverished, tribal corner of Afghanistan into a modern state has been a failure

The UK this week said a quiet goodbye to its political ambitions in Helmand, the corner of Afghanistan it once dreamt of remaking, when it handed over its former headquarters in the provincial capital.

The dusty offices of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), which once channelled hundreds of millions of dollars into trying to build everything from roads to rule of law, now belong to an Afghan government public health team.

Dozens of foreign staff lived there, secured by blast walls and British soldiers, and were ferried in and out of central Lashkar Gah by helicopter. There were treats like apple strudel and surprisingly good fry-ups, but it was a cramped place with a demanding brief: to transform a poor, increasingly violent, opium production centre into part of a modern state.

“[The PRT] helps the Afghan government deliver governance and security across the province,” the British Army said in a 2011 briefing about the outpost. “Success in Helmand, where the insurgency and drugs trade interact to create particular challenges, is critical to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.”

The 2014 departure was agreed years ago by Nato and President Hamid Karzai, who railed against the reconstruction teams as militarised outsiders undermining the government by providing services that should be the work of his ministers.

Still, they are leaving behind a province that last year harvested a record opium crop and where violence in northern Sangin got so bad that government forces reportedly struck a deal with the Taliban.

Unemployment is rampant, electricity is scarce and malnutrition is common. “People are worried,” said Ghulam Sarwar Ghafari, a 65-year-old school teacher in Lashkar Gah who said security was getting worse. “People had jobs working for the British. They were building roads, clinics and bridges, but a lot of things are unfinished.”

The British government has now retreated into the vast Camp Bastion military base, but in less than a month will shut what remains of the PRT. The mission in Kabul will still include the province in its aid plans, but the days of intense focus on an area that is home to fewer than a million people are over.

“The PRT has built a strong platform for future governance and development in Helmand,” a British embassy spokesman said. “It is desirable and right that the Afghans take increasing responsibility for their own future prosperity and security. We will continue to support them as they do so.”

The province was an unlikely place to focus efforts to rebuild Afghanistan even in 2006, when the UK took responsibility for security and aid from US forces. An impoverished, underpopulated corner of the country that has mostly served as a staging post for conquering armies looking towards the riches of Kabul or neighbouring Kandahar, its last real moment of glory came around a thousand years ago as the winter capital of the Ghaznavid empire.

Although it is now at the heart …read more