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The view from Helmand: provincial reconstruction in Afghanistan

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The UK presence in Afghanistan has been about more than just military action. Catriona Laing, Head of Mission of the Helmand Province Reconstruction Team, talked to James Mortimer about her experiences there.

Q1. What is the Helmand Province Reconstruction Team (HPRT), and what role do Civil Servants play?

The HPRT is a multi-national, multi-functional team that aims to build on the improvements in security and stability gained by the joint Afghan-NATO military operation, creating the foundations for a lasting peace in Helmand Province. Our underlying strategy recognises that peace and development is possible in Helmand, but it will only be sustainable if ordinary Helmandis have a meaningful stake in their government and society. So the HPRT works with contractors, police, and military colleagues drawn from the UK, USA, Denmark, and Estonia, as well as very talented local Afghan staff, to bring development and good governance to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

Civil servants are the core of the HPRT, which has been UK-led since 2006. It includes people from a range of different departments: not just the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Department for International Development (DFID), Ministry of Defence (MoD), but also staff from the Cabinet Office (CO), Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). As the FCO and NATO civilian representative in Helmand I head up the team. We are located on a UK military base on the outskirts of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. At its peak the HPRT had 220 staff; we are now reducing in size in line with the planned handover to Afghans in 2014.

Q2. What issues has Helmand Province faced?

As the heartland of the Taliban insurgency it is one of Afghanistan’s most challenging provinces, and is where most British troops have been deployed. Helmand’s infrastructure has suffered decades of war and neglect; it is one of the largest opium producing areas in the world and suffers endemic corruption, plus has a complex and subtle political, tribal, and social system.

Q3. What practical steps has the HPRT taken to achieve its aims?

In the early days we focused on ‘bricks and mortar’ type projects, such as building roads, schools, health clinics and police stations. This was necessary to ensure Helmandis had the infrastructure on which a functional society could be built. Subsequently, during my 18 months as Head of Mission, our efforts have concentrated on the human elements: training, mentoring and advising the Afghans to do the job for themselves. We’ve been working with the senior levels of the provincial government to strategically plan sustainable development. A key element of this is ensuring provincial officials develop good links with central government in Kabul; this enables them to access long term funding. We’ve helped them with budgeting, managing and developing staff, maintaining and running buildings and facilities – all the things that are needed for a local government to function effectively. Our role is to support Provincial Governor Naeem in running Helmand and last year the UK spent over £30 million supporting projects in the province.

Q4. You’ve said that Helmand suffers endemic corruption – isn’t corruption and a lack of accountability in provincial government going to undermine your efforts?

These are some of the most significant challenges, but there’s been real progress. One of the reasons the Taliban was able to establish a stronghold in Helmand was because government was perceived as offering nothing or – even worse – preying on the population. Rebuilding trust and confidence is vital to our long term aim of a stable and secure Afghanistan. One of the other great challenges we’ve faced is helping to extend accountable government across the province, thereby giving ordinary people a voice. My governance team, working closely with the Afghan authorities, has done pioneering work in this area. Together they have established directly-elected district level councils, which deal with everything from development to justice. Over 40,000 people have now voted to elect 275 councillors to represent them. This has been a huge success, and Helmand’s experience is now shaping the national debate in Afghanistan around local democracy.

Our Rule of Law Team has also helped to facilitate Afghan-led courses in community-based dispute resolution for village elders. The aim of these courses is to help bridge the gap between traditional village-level justice and the formal justice system. This complements the excellent work done by our police mentors in building a professional, effective, and increasingly respected police force in Helmand. The improvements in Helmand policing have been achieved from a low starting point. In 2006 police in Helmand were untrained, undisciplined and unprofessional. They were feared by the public who had very little confidence in their ability to provide basic core policing services. There is some way left to go but remarkable advances have been made. As with all our most successful projects, the solutions have been Afghan-led, often working with structures that are already there.

Q5. How do you measure whether your efforts have been successful?

We measure a whole range of different variables to judge our effectiveness. For example, the number of children enrolled in school has increased from 54,000 in 2007 to 130,000 in 2013 including 30,000 girls, up from zero in 2001. Today almost 80 percent of the population has access to healthcare within 10km of their home. We also track attitudes through a quarterly survey, conducted by Afghans with heads of Helmandi households. One critical statistic which gives us cause for optimism is that support for a Taliban return to power in Afghanistan has fallen in Helmand from 18 percent in 2011 to just five percent now.

People in Helmand are no different to anyone else: they want peace, security, justice, decent services and the opportunity to make a living. It was desperation caused by the failing state that drove many to the Taliban.

Q6. What happens when the UK withdraws its personnel in 2014?

Helmand province has come on a huge amount since we arrived seven years ago. Afghans are relying on our support less and less. So it is natural that the work of the HPRT is changing. We are stepping back from providing direct support and advice, and helping the Afghans to lock in the gains we have made over the last few years. Ultimately the HPRT is due to close next year, but this is not the end of our support. UK funding will continue to be provided through central government in Kabul or through international organisations. We have supported the Provincial Governor to get the United Nations established in Helmand and they will set up shop by the end of this year.

Q7. What is it like to work in Helmand? Can you describe some of the difficulties you and your team face?

It is definitely one of the wilder places for a British civil servant to be working. The biggest concern is the security of the team. There are regular insurgent attacks on Lashkar Gah, and there is a constant threat of attacks on our base, and on our transport. We have to travel to meetings in armoured vehicles wearing bullet-proof vests and helmets. We rely on careful monitoring and analysis of the threat, and on our highly dedicated G4S security teams, to keep us safe. The threats include crude but deadly roadside bombs, and suicide bombers driving vehicles rigged with explosives.

Helmand is also a very tough natural environment. The summer temperatures are oppressive, sometimes close to 50 degrees, but it can be freezing cold in winter. Dust storms are a regular occurrence and extremely unpleasant. Our location is remote: getting here involves a three-hour flight from Dubai to the main UK military base in Camp Bastion, and then a military helicopter to our base in Lashkar Gah. From bad weather to helicopters being diverted for operations, plenty can go wrong to add hours or days to the journey.

Q8. How have you found leading such a mixed team?

Leading a team with staff from 15 different organisations ranging from US marines to the Danish aid agency DANIDA isn’t always easy. There can be competing departmental agendas, and different organisational and national cultures. Though formally I count as a two-star General, I don’t give orders. The top team here relies on ‘soft power’ and persuasion to get things done. At the heart of our approach is a clear plan which we all work to. Physically sharing offices helps too. Communication isn’t just something that happens in formal meetings, we are constantly discussing what we are doing, bouncing ideas off each other and drawing on each other’s experiences. We all live together in a series of rooms and converted shipping containers on the base. Every day we share meals, play sport and socialise – this creates a real camaraderie and team bond. This is essential for a team to get things done in a tough environment like Lashkar Gar.

Q9. So what do you do in your down time?

People said to me on arrival the days would be long and the weeks short, and I agree with that. It’s not unusual for staff to work 12-hour days, six days a week. But that pace means that the weeks fly by. We work flat out for six weeks and then have a two week ‘breather break’ to recharge our batteries.

Sport and exercise is a major part of life here and I have never been fitter, with a mixture of running round the camp, Thai boxing with my body guard Andre, and the latest US fitness craze to hit Helmand: Insanity, a full-on interval training programme. We also have wonderful yoga classes under the desert stars and a weekly volleyball match. Thursday evenings we open our club house for a few hours to socialise together. We have had some great mixed events such as a celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee and an Iftar (Ramadan fast-breaking) dinner for our Afghan colleagues. My iPad mini has been a life-saver and I read a bit most evenings – usually detective novels to relax.

Q10. What will you personally take away from your experience working in Helmand?

Three things: the importance of innovation, admiration for the brave women of Helmand who put their lives on the line to make a difference, and respect for the military.

I am a big fan of the book Adapt by Tim Harford, which argues for the need to adapt ideas through trial and error, and to learn from what has worked less well. I am very proud of how we have applied this in Helmand and others have also been impressed. When Oliver Letwin, Cabinet Office Minister for Government Policy, visited in November 2012 he was very struck with our localism agenda and reported back to Cabinet that the HPRT was engaged in truly inspiring work.

Helmand is a very conservative society based on the Pashtunwali code. Women in positions of power and influence are rare but we are seeing the start of a generational change. For example, elections were held recently for the municipal council. When these were last held three years ago only a handful of women registered to vote; this year 880 registered and five stood for the four seats reserved for women. This is a huge breakthrough. I have such admiration for the women who are willing to do this because they risk their own security. I have made female political empowerment one of my top priorities and I speak at a number of women-only events to encourage women to participate in political life.

I have developed an enormous respect for the military too. The best British commanders are incredibly impressive, not just at the tactic of military operations but also at grasping the wider context of our deployment in Helmand. The way they motivate their troops is truly inspiring. On the US marine side the strength of their bond with their motto “Semper Fidelis” or "always faithful" is moving. Living and working on a military base means life is generally very male dominated. I have got used to being the only woman present at the senior command briefs in a sea of male uniforms. I have learned how to make sure my voice is heard by my military colleagues through adopting their language and keeping interventions as crisp as possible.

Above all, the experience has tested my leadership capabilities. While I have learned a lot from my military colleagues about leadership, I do think they need to be more willing to challenge up the chain of command. Overall I would say we have learned from each other. I have tried to bring the best of both cultures to bear on what is the most challenging job I have faced in my career so far.

I have become much more resilient as a person and better able to keep things in perspective. Attending deeply moving memorial vigils for soldiers killed in action was all too frequent in the first part of my time here. The sacrifice that our young soldiers have made in Helmand is a constant reminder for me of the importance of the legacy we leave behind. I am confident that we have done everything we can to leave Helmand with the best possible chance for the future. That future is in Afghan hands, though with our continuing support and goodwill.

After 18 months in post I will soon be leaving. I will be visiting capitals of partner countries to set out my reflections and the lessons we have learnt from this demanding experience. On his most recent visit in July, the Prime Minister made it very clear that we have an important responsibility to capture these lessons to inform those engaged in conflicts of the future. We are doing just that.

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  1. Comment by Danny Kushlick posted on

    Catriona, an absolutley fascinating post. Certainly makes my job seem easy 🙂

    Whilst I well understand that drugs are not the only issue in the province, as your comprehensive answers above reveal. But I'm particularly interested in the impact of poppy production in the the region. Even the UN Office on Drugs and Crime recognises that the illegal drug market is created by the global prohibition of production and supply of poppy intended for non-medical use.

    It is also well understood that illegal production and transit migrate to more fragile states, and Afghanistan in general and Helmand in particular has that attribute in spades. Given that this is the case, what are the prospects for a reduction in poppy production post the draw down?

    What we also know from UNODC analysis from the World Drug Report 2008 is that another 'unintended consequence' of the prohibition is the balloon effect, whereby production and transit cannot be eradicated, only displaced. Isn't it the case that even were Afghanistan and Helmand in particular to be able to assert the rule of law as it were, and poppy production to become untenable there, that it would only serve to push it somewhere else? Perhaps back to the Golden Triangle, or beyond?

    The International Institute for Strategic Studies has identified the global prohibition itself as an active threat to international security. Aren't the UK's missions at odds - in so far as the Home Office supports the drug control system (prohibition) that contributes to insecurity at home and abroad? Whilst the Foreign Office attempts to rebuild a nation undermined partly due to the insecurity created by the prohibition? There's a tragic circularity here.

    From where we sit it would appear that the impact of ending the global prohibition and creating a legally regulated market for non-medical opium and heroin use would end widescale poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. Half of the world's opium is grown for the legal opiates market, and the UK has thousands of hectares under cultivation with opium poppies. Afghan farmers could not compete on price compared to poppy grown in India, Tasmania, UK, Hungary etc. Clearly there are economic issues for poor farmers that would need to be addressed when this transition happens, but that is far from insurmountable.

    Isn't one answer to expand the current legal provision to non-medical use and remove the incentive for poverty stricken peasants all over the world to grow for the illicit market.

    For more see:

    • Replies to Danny Kushlick>

      Comment by Danny Kushlick posted on

      From Washington Post (3 Nov):
      'As U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, poppy trade it spent billions fighting still flourishes'

      and this from New York Times (2 Nov):
      'That Other Big Afghan Crisis, the Growing Army of Addicts'

    • Replies to Danny Kushlick>

      Comment by philippabenfield posted on

      A reply from the author
      Many thanks for your comment. Sorry it has taken me so long to reply but I am travelling. I want to respond on your comments on Helmand and leave others who know more about the UK side to comment on those aspects.

      You asked what the prospects are for a reduction in poppy production post drawdown. It is clear this is an area where significant challenges remain. Permanently reducing poppy production in Helmand and other provinces will require a generation of effort. It will require Afghan will and continued support from the international community. We are under no illusions on this. Over my time in Helmand we have placed more emphasis on the private sector dimension. We have been working with a variety of entrepreneurs to understand the barriers they have faced in investing in licit agriculture. What came out of this dialogue was that we need to focus more on access to markets and adding value to licit products. For example Helmand's climate allows then province to supply the whole of Afghanistan with winter vegetables. Enabling farmers to do this requires some simple innovation through plastic sheeting to allow green housing and helping farmers to a access credit to make this investment. There are many similar examples which are already helping many farmers and those involved in the poppy value chain to shift to licit products. The large investment we made in 259 km of road in Helmand is now starting to pay dividends through enabling farmers to access markets. There is no one product that competes easily with poppy but providing a range of alternatives, helping farmers add value, and supporting access markets can together provide the basis for successful transition for farmers and entrepreneurs who want to shift to licit products. The key is to help overcome the range of barriers and to help farmers and entrepreneurs make a market based choice. As you have indicated the economics has to make sense. There is a good national programme which supports a market based approach - the Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility (CARD-F). The UK and Danes are now supporting this programme in Helmand and this will continue post our draw down next year. So we also recognise the need for a long term commitment. Early indications are that this more market based approach is paying dividends and allowing farmer who want to shift into licit products to do so profitably.

      • Replies to philippabenfield>

        Comment by Danny Kushlick posted on

        Dear Catriona,
        Thank you for your reply.
        This is from today's Guardian (11/11/13):
        'Afghanistan's poppy farmers plant record opium crop, UN report says'
        "Around half the poppy grown in Afghanistan is planted in Helmand, and the end of a UK-backed project trying to keep poppy out of the main valleys, or "food zone", brought increase in planting there, though crop levels were far below that in areas under insurgent control, the report said.

        "Opium cultivation in the food zone increased by half … [but] outside the food zone the extent of poppy cultivation was far greater," the report said.

        The economics of prohibition make the attempt to significantly reduce poppy production all but impossible. As I said in my previous post, the problem is that the policies of prohibition and illicit poppy eradication are at odds with each other. UNODC has admitted that, like alcohol Prohibition, the drug control system creates the ilegal market.

        I'd be very keen to see how the Home Office squares its support for the global prohibition with its desire to see reduced illicit drug production and supply, given that the former creates the latter. And as a tax payer, I struggle to comprehend the contradictory spending inherent within the UK's drug strategy.

        One can only assume that the UK commitment to retain its support for the global prohibition has more to do with geopolitics than successful outcomes. The tragedy is that it is the poorest and most marginalised who ultimately pay the price for keeping members of the UN Security Council happy. Here are some papers I wrote on the need to de-securitise drugs globally:

        In reality we have similar problems in our respective jobs. The reconstruction of Helmand is held back by forces beyond our control. As is the development of an effective global drug policy. The good news though is that, in my field at least, I see light at the end of the tunnel, as the world gradually moves away from prohibition, and toward legal regulation. It is our hope that by 2020 one of the forces holding Afghanistan back from reconstruction (global drug prohibition) will be gone. Our combined work will increase stability in a country and for a people who deserve so much better than what the world has collectively inflicted upon them.

  2. Comment by Mark James posted on


    Many thanks for sharing those thoughts from Helmand.

    I was interested in your opening statement, which touches on the relationship between security and 'reconstruction', that the HPRT "aims to build on the improvements in security and stability gained by the joint Afghan-NATO military operation, creating the foundations for a lasting peace in Helmand Province."

    The UK's very early thinking about 'stabilisation' suggested that security and stability would be achieved as much by progress towards political settlement and on reconstruction as by military operations (of course each situation would be different). Our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq may have changed that.

    I wondered how you saw the relationship between security, reconstruction and political settlement in Afghanistan today? In particular, can reconstruction help to secure security and stability - or is its role to cement (and presumely shape) the security and stability that military operations have already secured?


    DFID/Cabinet Office

    • Replies to Mark James>

      Comment by philippabenfield posted on

      A reply from the author
      "Many thanks for this interesting comment which gets to the heart of the theory of change. The way we see this is as follows: the surge of US troops into Helmand enables ISAF forces to help provide sustained security in the main population centres of Helmand. Our analysis suggests that 18 months of sustained security was necessary for people to feel confident that their area was secure. On the back of this Provincial Governor Mangal was able to start a process of political outreach to people who had become very mistrustful of government which in the past had been very predatory - hence why Taliban were able to get a foothold in Helmand simply by offering "fair " ie not corrupt justice. Gradually trust started to rebuild and with PRT support the systems of accountable governance were established which in turn enabled basic services to be delivered. This in turn formed the basis for starting to rebuild the social contract and this is what has been key to enable those original security gains to be sustained as people put their trust in Afgahan security - now trained and capable on their own. So this is how we see it fitting together."

  3. Comment by Dave Coakley posted on

    I just wanted to say I found this incredibly inspiring. Thanks.

  4. Comment by Michelle Dunn posted on

    I think you are very brave to even travel to Lashkar Gan let alone embark on a mission for change. I don't think there could be any members of society who could doubt your sincerity and belief in what you are doing and you all have my admiration and respect.

  5. Comment by Chris Lamb posted on

    We can all learn lessons from the fantastic engagement work you and the multi-national team are undertaking in Helmand. You are certainly winning hearts and minds by encouraging the people of Afghanistan to have a voice and have a say in their future. More importantly are the increasing number of women being a part of it too.

    I really enjoyed reading this article. Thank you.

  6. Comment by Richard Hackett posted on

    A fascinating & at times moving account of a - sadly, up until now - role largely unrecognised by the wider Civil Service. It has certainly made me aware that the UK Civil Service can play an important role outside our Country as well as within it.

  7. Comment by Glynn Roberts posted on

    Excellent articles. I would like to see more on fraud. Tackling fraud -Why the continuity of evidence laws are so confusing that costs the public money in that although told they will not know the outcome.They are in fact not told that their effort in submitting evidence eg: CCTV / photo's etc is not used ? not even from the police.This area is a black hole in that such a valuable tool has been lost to investigators as already thin on the ground. Some people will never be caught enjoying many years of benfits due to this approach. ( Too long to explain here) I see no info on this on any site from the civil service which is causing confusion.There is a lack of detailed actual facts on the system that is hard to verifty as to what is truth or fiction. A blog on this is overdue.