- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

Britain has quietly withdrawn its senior development adviser from Helmand province in Afghanistan, crippling promised reconstruction projects at a time when officials see such projects as critical to success.

Only four out of more than 20 British civilian posts in Helmand are now filled, angering army commanders, who fear that efforts in the province since June may be rendered pointless without a sustained reconstruction effort.

U.S. officials also have expressed disquiet that the British reconstruction workers have withdrawn, while U.S. Agency for International Development’s personnel remain.

NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Marine Gen. James L. Jones, said in Washington last week that success in Afghanistan depends on the effectiveness of reconstruction and aid more than the number of troops.

“The real challenge is how well the reconstruction mission and the international aid mission is focused,” he said. “And fundamentally, this is the exit strategy for Afghanistan.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, after a visit to the country a day earlier, also said the war cannot be won without a political solution that draws in farmers who are being recruited by the ousted Taliban regime.

When Prime Minister Tony Blair announced Britain’s deployment of 3,300 troops to Helmand in January, ministers said its purpose was to bring security and enable better policing and the building of schools, hospitals and roads.

But the civilian officials needed to oversee this have retreated from the troubled province, or simply have not arrived.

An army officer who recently returned from Helmand said many British civilians were reluctant to leave the relative comfort of Kabul for the harsh conditions in Helmand.

“If we can’t drag them away from their barbecues and beers in Kabul, then what we are doing in Helmand will be fatally undermined,” he said. “We are creating the space for the development work to be done, but there is no one there to do it.”

Wendy Phillips, Helmand development adviser for Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID), was recalled to Kabul in August. Her successor, Barry Kavanagh, has been told to stay in the Afghan capital.

The senior Foreign Office adviser in Lashkargah, capital of Helmand, narrowly escaped injury last month when her vehicle was struck by a suicide bomber, but she is expected to return.

It takes at least a day and a significant security operation for an official to travel from Kabul to Lashkargah, and British defense sources said this meant delays in authorizing key aid projects.