When David Cameron met the governor of Helmand province in Camp Bastion on Monday morning, the “atmospherics”, to use a military phrase, were bad.
The pair had been due to meet in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand and a town where British and Afghan forces think they have made excellent progress. But the visit, designed to display safety and ease of access, couldn’t be made.
Gulab Mangal, the governor, instead came to Camp Bastion to meet Cameron. One observer reported he leaned over to the prime minister and said: “Sorry. We lost one of yours today.”
Cameron flew into Camp Bastion and had breakfast with British troops before addressing a mixed crowd of around 200 British and American soldiers in the US camp, Camp Leatherneck.
With the Americans celebrating independence day, Cameron acknowledged a British PM was an unlikely person to rally the US troops on 4 July.
“It may be a bit odd for a British PM to say happy Fourth of July,” he said. “Maybe if one of my predecessors hadn’t screwed up so badly, we’d all be one army.”
After that it became apparent Cameron’s schedule was being ripped up. Cameron spent the rest of the day in Camp Bastion, visiting a hospital and in back-to-back meetings with top military officials including James Bucknall, who, Cameron later relayed, told him he should not significantly reduce troop numbers for “two fighting seasons”.
Cameron chose to journey to Afghanistan to demonstrate that the situation was improving and British troops could leave in tandem with the Americans. But there was concern among some military sources that such a move could undo all the work of British forces in Helmand since operations began there in 2006. Cameron wanted to show he was listening to their concerns.
Military commanders explained what the drawdown plan, with all British fighting troops out by 2014, means on the ground. International forces in the Isaf mission are handing over power to local forces in three tranches, with towns such as Lashkar Gah in tranche one, already handed over to Afghan control; tranche two includes towns handed over from October 2011; and the last of the provinces handed over by March 2012.
In a briefing for journalists, the British colonel in charge of planning, Charles Page, emphasised that this was a “process” and a “transition”. Page said the absolute timing of withdrawals could be “conditions-based”.
Many talked about the US-UK troop drawdown being a “forcing mechanism”. They likened the tactic to “stabilisers” being taken off a bicycle and “electric shocks” being applied to the Afghan troops, who may be too reliant on international forces.
They also pointed to incidences where it has not been the Isaf forces that have intervened but the Afghan police or army: a suicide bomb by insurgent forces near the government compound was handled by the Afghan National Army (ANA). What the local forces lack in technology, one commander said, they make up for in human intelligence, being able to spot immediately a stranger in the town square.
In 40C heat, with the search for a missing British soldier continuing, Cameron seemed subdued through much of the day. But he did not accept that difficult conditions might slow the drawdown and said the “big picture” showed the campaign was moving into a “new phase” of transition to Afghan control.
He used a repeated formulation – that by the date of departure, 2014, British forces will have been in Afghanistan for 13 years and Helmand for eight. And that after 2014, there would still be British troops in Afghanistan, just not fighting.
The military echoed that view. Colonel Nick Welch, deputy commander of Nato’s forces inside the area of operation, said: “We will be close by to provide the necessary support”, which will include “combining fire and control of the air”. Colonel Page took a similar line. “We’re looking at Afghans taking the lead, but we will be close by,” he said. “After 2014 we will still be supportive.”