Major Alastair Macartney: History made at Lashkar Gah transition
Major Alastair Macartney, of the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), blogs about last month’s Transition in Lashkar Gah.
Last month I was fortunate enough to be present while history was made. Lashkar Gah, the capital City of Helmand province, entered Transition. I was amongst just a small handful of westerners present at the ceremony which was very much an Afghan led, organised and managed event.
Transition, contrary to popular opinion, is a process, not an event. It does not mean that we have now deserted our Afghan colleagues in Lashkar Gah or that we no longer need to provide them with help and support. But it does mean that, despite the many sacrifices we have seen by coalition Troops and Afghans alike, we can now demonstrate real progress, that we are stepping in the right direction, that there is clear light at the end of the tunnel and that there are signs of strength in our exit strategy; we are seeing tangible results from the hard work and dedication that our Troops and civil servants have made over the years. It also means that we still have a lot of work to do to complete the process within a relatively short timeline, less than three-and-a-half years away. And it is not just about security but also governance and development, focusing on the long term.
I’d been to a number of meetings in the build up to the event so I had a good idea what would be happening. But seeing it on the day was overpowering. Ten days previously I was part of a ceremony that marked the second anniversary of the death of Rifleman William Aldridge, the youngest soldier to die in Afghanistan. When the Provincial Governor, Gulab Mangal, stood up to make his speech at the ceremony wearing a William Aldridge Foundation wristband, it was a particularly poignant moment. The Governor had, that morning, released an open letter thanking the international community for their assistance and sacrifices in Afghanistan. It included the following passage:
“I can never forget meeting Mrs Lucy Aldridge in England, who lost her young son William to help my people. I said to her one day you will come to see what your son made possible. The Government and the Afghan forces in Helmand will keep this promise for Mrs Aldridge.”
So, when Governor Mangal took the wristband, that Lucy Aldridge had sent out to him, off his wrist and held it high, personally thanking Rifleman William Aldridge and all the other heroes that had made the day possible, the room went silent. It was an overwhelming silence, the strength of which was incredibly powerful, and especially so considering that the vast majority of the audience were Afghans.
Outside, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were lined up facing the coalition forces. The coalition forces were presented flowers and, on the word of command, marched off the parade leaving the security firmly in the capable hands of the ANSF.
Earlier in the day I had been helping the local staff wrap turbans, ready to be presented to the dignitaries. Looking up onto the stage I noticed Dr Ashraf Ghani, the Afghanistan President’s lead on Transition. Perched on his head was one of the turbans that I had wrapped! He joined the Governor in making a speech and taking questions from both the hoard of International journalists that were present and, more importantly, the local Helmandi and Afghan National journalists.
The key marker of success was that the whole ceremony happened with precision and without interruption. The ANSF had provided the security and, despite it being a significant target for insurgents, they had failed to stage an attack of any sort.
So what’s changed today? In actual fact, in terms of capability, very little. The Afghans had already been providing the security in Lashkar Gah for some time. They did this the month before the Transition ceremony and they are doing it now, the month afterwards. But having entered the formal Transition process the ANSF in Lashkar Gah are holding their heads high. They’ve proved their success and are a model for the rest of Helmand to build on. There is still much to do but the Afghans can, and will, stand proud on their own feet and, in the future, without our help.