Dust swirled up from Lashkar Gar airfield in the sunshine towards the blue skies; convoys were forming, line after line of bulldozers, oil tankers, 4×4 cars bristling with guns and men in wraparound sunglasses. The American private security company, DynCorps, had come to town to start Afghanistan’s opium war.
Lieutenant Colonel Henry Worsley watched the build up with a mixture of anxiety and distaste. “We will need to liaise with them, just to make sure we do not go anywhere near those areas. Our position is quite clear, we are not going to get involved in eradication,” he said.
This was in March 2006, Britain was about to deploy a task force of 5,700 to Helmand. A deployment which was to last no more than two years, one that Defence Secretary John Reid had hoped would end “with not a shot being fired in anger”.
One of the stated reasons for the mission was to tackle opium production. Helmand was providing 25 per cent of the Afghan crop, resulting in heroin flooding cities in this country. British Government officials contradicted themselves on whether eradication would be supported. The military was against going down that path; the last thing they wanted was to create a recruiting pool for the Taliban among angry farmers who had seen their livelihood destroyed.
That was the first time I had met Henry Worsley, a former SAS officer of great charm and modesty. I got to know him, like him and kept in touch with him over the years. On Monday I heard the news about his death, just as he was so close to making history, completing Sir Ernest Shackleton’s unfinished journey to the South Pole.
Henry and a small team were at the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) base in the Helmandi capital, Lashkar Gar, which was being handed over by the Americans to the British. One of his tasks was to convince the local population that the latest foreign army to arrive came as friends, bearing aid and development,
I accompanied Henry and his very capable second-in-command, Major Shaun Pendry, to shuras in villages. There was no need for body armour, we travelled in ‘soft-skin’ Land Rovers.
Henry’s genuine desire to help, his willingness to listen, impressed the local people. They, in turn, were generous with their hospitality . But they wanted to know what form the aid would take: what kind of projects? Which areas? Should they form a committee of elders to put forward proposals? What is going to happen with the poppy fields? When will the farmers get compensation? Henry tried to get some details from London, but none was forthcoming.
Lashkar Gar was still relatively safe, we mixed with the local people in cafes and the bazaar. I stayed in a guest house in town and had Henry and Shaun over for dinner. But Henry fretted that the elders would become sceptical about British intentions; the Taliban were hard at work inciting jihad.
DynCorp started eradication; the farmers saw little of the compensation promised by the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul. The DynCorp contractors took to going over to the PRT base for dinner with the remaining Americans every evening. They did not vary their route; one evening, while we were there, a car packed with explosives followed them and drove into the main gate. It was the first suicide attack in Lashkar Gar.
The mood began to change across southern Afghanistan. In next door Kandahar a young Canadian lieutenant attending a shura was attacked with an axe and suffered severe injuries. Talibs opened fire in a school in Lashkar Gar, killing a 17-year-old student.
I left Lashkar Gar a little later for a visit to Kabul. We would be returning to Helmand many times in the next eight years. As a colleague and I were getting on the helicopter, Henry asked: “Are you guys going to the British embassy in Kabul? If you are, can you ask them what exactly is the HMG’s policy when it comes poppy eradication? No one has told us down here.” The eradication programme in Helmand continued. Helmand remains the highest poppy producing province in Afghanistan.
It was sad to reflect that the man I first saw in the sunshine of Helmand had lost his life in the icy wastes of Antarctica. But it was typical of Henry that he was testing the limits of human endurance while helping others, raising money for the Endeavour Fund for injured servicemen and women.