The South Asia Channel

Leaving Helmand

March 12 was my last day in Helmand, concluding in a joint transfer ceremony with Maj. Gen. John Toolan of the U.S. Marines to our successors.  It's a good moment to take stock of progress.

Helmand Province has been transformed in the past two years, building on foundations lain in the preceding years by ISAF and Afghan forces.  Threats still persist - as the tragic deaths last week of six British soldiers showed.  But the situation is very different from 2010.  When I visited Marjah for the first time that July we were not able to leave the military base because of high levels of insecurity.  That summer and autumn Royal Marines, U.S. Marines, and Afghan troops took heavy casualties in Sangin.  Almost all of northern Helmand was accessible only by air.  Even in central Helmand large parts of Nad-Ali were under insurgent control.

A year on, Nad-Ali was a 20-minute drive from Lashkar Gah.  In December, Governor Gulab Mangal took Afghan parliamentarians to Marjah to meet local officials in a café where my successor and I had lunch the month before.  In January, Governor Mangal was the first governor in 30 years to drive from the northern District of Kajaki down to Lashkar Gah in the centre, approximately a 130 kilometre drive.  Last month 3,100 Sangin elders registered for its first local election.  Seven districts now draw funds from Afghan systems under the District Delivery Program.

Life for ordinary people is changing for the better.  Today 120,000 children go to school - a quarter of them girls - a 50% rise from late-2010.  In the last two years 744 kilometres of roads were built, 45 major canal assets were repaired, and the number of justice officials doubled.  Currently, 49 health centres are open, up from 27 in 2009.  Since July 2011, 3,500 students completed vocational training in Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, with over 70% of those finding new jobs.  By November, 20,000 will have graduated from 15 training centres across Helmand, including five centres for women.

This remarkable progress has come through the efforts of an exceptional team of Afghan and international partners, led for four years by Governor Mangal.  His firm leadership and the service and sacrifice of Afghan and international security forces have been the foundation for improved security, new freedom of movement and a better life for the people of Helmand.

The Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) typifies the combined team.  A U.K.-led, multi-national, civil-military body, it includes over 200 British, U.S., Danish, Estonian and Afghan staff:  diplomats, military officers, civil police, engineers, lawyers and experts in agriculture, infrastructure, governance and other fields.  It is a mark of progress in Helmand that the PRT is now drawing down as we hand over to Afghan leadership.  But its work is not yet finished. Few now dispute Helmand's progress.  One example is in education, from 2010 to date, there has been a 26% increase in number of schools open and a 49% and 58% rise in male and female students respectively.

The task ahead is to ensure it is sustained to 2014 and beyond - when international assistance will continue, but in different forms from today - as our own numbers reduce.  Considering the progress made since 2010, this is a realistic goal.

Plenty of challenges remain - and won't end by 2014.  More work is needed to develop the Afghan Army and Police.  Key PRT priorities are to strengthen the systems of governance, in particular links to Kabul, investment in economic infrastructure - roads, canals, power - and facilitating private sector growth for jobs and prosperity.  It's a demanding agenda but a good roadmap for the future, with foundations that have become progressively stronger since 2010.

Michael O'Neill is the outgoing U.K. Senior Representative, Southern Afghanistan.