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“Desert of Death, A Soldier’s Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan” by Leo Docherty

“Desert of Death, A Soldier’s Journey from Iraq to Afghanistan” by Leo Docherty, published by Faber & Faber (London) in 2007 is one of an increasing number of British books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Leo Docherty, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Scots Guards, left the British Army in 2006 convinced that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were mistaken and ill-conceived.  He concludes that the British forces in Helmand “plunged hastily into isolated peril”, and have lost the battle for hearts and minds.  He says that “A peaceful, developed Helmand cannot be won by the sword, and the longer we try, the greater the tragedy.”

Docherty, who is a linguist and traveller, had too great a sense of openness to other cultures to perform the service that is expected of British military personnel, without questioning the whys and wherefors of the situation.

In April 2006 he was deployed to Southern Afghanistan, after serving in Iraq.  He had previously visited Kabul in a private capacity while on leave, and travelled in the tribal areas of Pakistan, in order to learn the culture and language of the area.

In Helmand Province he served in Lashkar Gah, worked with the Afghan National Army (ANA) and soldiered elsewhere in Helmand, including Sangin.  Doherty appears to enjoy the soldiering offered by the deployment, as well as the confusion of dealing with the Afghans.  It is clear that growing of opium poppies is the main business of the area and that the British have no alternative crops to offer, and that the police and local politicians, as well as the Taliban, are all benefitting from the money generated from opium sales.

A Captain in the ANA explains the Afghan reality: “Captain Leo, remember that everyone here has some connection to the poppy, even the [District] Chief, everyone.”  He adds that the District Chief will, “do whatever is most beneficial for him in all things.  If the Taliban are here he’ll support the Taliban, when the British are here he supports the British.”

In his epilogue Doherty says that the “British intervention in Helmand Province has been not only a blundering catastrophe, but a violent tradegy.”  He says that the heroism and sacrifice of British forces has occured in a situation where political pressures have forced the British forces to scatter small groups of soldiers across northern Helmund where they lack the resources to effectively control areas, “a gross military blunder.” Doherty maintains that it has not been possible to “properly establish security anywhere in Helmund” and that, as a result,reconstruction work cannot take place in the province.  Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s opium and Helmand produces 42% of Afghan production.  Foreign troops are seen as a threat to poppy production by all involved in the trade, and not all those shooting are Taliban.

It is Doherty’s view that without a realistic policy on inhibition of the opium market and the closing the porous border with Pakistan current policies will not lead to any improvement in the situation.  In reality it is now impossible to close the frontier, Pakistan cannot do so and the Afghan and Coalition forces available are wholly inadequate for such a task.  Afghanistan is a country in which the rule of government has never effectively been applied in provinces like Helmand, for a foreign army, or armies, to undertake such a task is impossible without the full support of the population.

This is a thoughtful account of his deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and raises a number of questions; it is far from clear how current policies in Afghanistan will resolve its problems, particularly in Helmand Province.

See also: Wikipedia on Helmand Province

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