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Monday, 08.30.2010, 08:08am (GMT)
General Freakley's criticism has supported a Times investigation which revealed that the British strategy in Helmand was flawed from the start
1 of 1General Freakley's criticism has supported a Times investigation which revealed that the British strategy in Helmand was flawed from the start Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Michael Evans Pentagon Correspondent
American and British military commanders were at loggerheads over the right strategy for Helmand in southern Afghanistan when Britain’s ill-fated campaign began in the summer of 2006, The Times can reveal.
Disclosures by Lieutenant-General Benjamin Freakley, then the most senior US operational commander in southern and eastern Afghanistan, support the findings of an investigation by The Times earlier this year, which found that the British military had signed off on a plan for Helmand that was flawed from the start.
In an exclusive interview. General Freakley recalled that he had been scathing about the British effort in Helmand, which included an inability, in his view, to put sufficient pressure on the Taleban while also implementing reconstruction programmes to keep the insurgents on the back foot. When General Freakley felt that this was not happening, he became so annoyed that he flew to British headquarters in Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, to make his point in person.
“I made a strong recommendation that they take more offensive action in Helmand because the enemy was building up,” he said.
“But I was told by the British that they didn’t believe their forces were ready, so we had all these troops just living in Camp Bastion [the main British base in Helmand].”
Those present at the meeting included Colonel Charlie Knaggs, who was in tactical charge of the British troops in Helmand, Lieutenant-Colonel Stuart Tootal, commander of the 3rd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, and Mohammed Daud, then governor of the province.
Britain’s most senior commander, Brigadier Ed Butler, who was in charge of all the British military personnel in Afghanistan, did not attend.
After what by all accounts was a confrontational encounter, an official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office took exception to the general’s tone. “He wrote back to London saying I had been scathing about the British effort. That was true.
“But I was trying to get them to keep constant pressure on the adversary and to make sure that reconstruction efforts and spreading the governance of the Afghan Government went on simultaneously.
“Without simultaneous action you’re just poking your finger at the problem,” General Freakley said.
He said that he admired Colonel Knaggs and enjoyed working with him. He said, however, that it was his impression that there was a difficulty, even friction, over the British chain of command, with Colonel Knaggs in charge of troops in Helmand and Brigadier Butler as the senior overall commander based in Kabul. “I think Brigadier Butler wanted Colonel Knaggs just to be in charge of the British provincial reconstruction team [in Lashkar Gah],” he said.
General Freakley also criticised Britain’s tactic of sending small groups of soldiers to defend district centres in far-flung places around the province, such as Musa Qala and Sangin. The “platoon house” strategy led to assaults by the Taleban and heavy casualties among the British.
“That tactic proved disastrous,” said General Freakley, who is now commander of US Accessions Command (recruiting and army cadets) at Fort Knox in Kentucky. “They thought of a platoon house as in Northern Ireland but in Afghanistan you have to be mobile against the Taleban. You can’t be in a fixed position because the Taleban will hit you.”
At the time General Freakley was receiving messages from President Karzai asking the military to restore the district centres, which had been overrun by the Taleban. “You do that by attacking the enemy, putting in Afghan police and then staying mobile,” he said.
Contradicting claims by British commanders in the past, he said: “I don’t believe Governor Daud [then the governor of Helmand] insisted on having the platoon houses.”
Despite his criticisms General Freakley underlined his respect for the men of 16 Air Assault Brigade who were in Helmand in 2006. “I have the greatest respect for those men,” he said. “It seems that . . . they thought they were going to be involved in some sort of peacekeeping force but they had to face a very complex environment.”
General Freakley’s comments came as President Karzai said that the overall Nato strategy in Afghanistan needed to be reassessed.
“The experience over the past eight years showed that fighting [the Taleban] in Afghan villages has been ineffective and is not achieving anything but killing civilians,” President Karzai said in a statement released after a meeting with Norbert Lammert, the president of the German parliament.
Seven US troops died at the weekend in southern and eastern Afghanistan, while officials found the bodies of five kidnapped aides working for a female candidate in the western Herat province. A total of 62 international forces have died in the country this month, including seven British troops.