Afghanistan: questions of life and death

Author: By Kim Sengupta, Defence Correspondent

A. The UK deployment of around 4,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2006 took place
against a background of a major commitment in Iraq, with the force there
coming under increasing attack from Shia militias. There were deep concerns
among military commanders about the strains of “overstretch” and fighting a
war on two fronts. Over the three years since, the size of the force rose to
the current level of 9,100.

When the UK began withdrawing from southern Iraq, the Americans, who had been
against the pullout, wanted some of the forces to be sent to Afghanistan.
The Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, warned that
there could not be “one for one” transfer, but the senior officers, General
Sir Richard Dannatt, and his successor in waiting General Sir David Richards
in particular, wanted reinforcements of between 2,000 and 2,500 to be sent
to Helmand.

The main reasons for the request were that a shortage of boots on the ground
meant that strategic ground won from the Taliban could not be held, allowing
the enemy to slip back and regain control. There was also the feeling that
with up to 22,000 US troops going into the south of the country, including
Helmand, the British had to raise their numbers to maintain credibility with
the Americans.

A series of options were put before the Government. Gordon Brown, under
Treasury lobbying, picked the one involving the lowest commitment: a
temporary deployment of 700 for just the period of the Afghan national
elections. After the recent controversy over that decision, a review will
take place after the election in the Autumn, and it is expected that the
temporary 700 would become permanent and an additional force would be sent,
numbers yet to be decided.

Q. What has been the British strategy in Afghanistan following the 2006
deployment?

A. John Reid, then Defence Secretary, will never live down saying that he
hoped the mission would end “without a shot being fired in anger”. Figures
vary, but around six million rounds are thought to have been fired in the
following three years.

From the start of the mission UK policy appeared to be confused and drifting.
The official mission statement was that British troops would help President
Hamid Karzai bring governance to a traditionally lawless part of the country
and assist in the poppy eradication process. What happened was that British
troops charged off to outlying areas and set up platoon houses in effect
inviting Taliban attacks. The operation ran counter to a plan drawn up by
General (now Sir) David Richards, the British commander of Nato forces,
which called for secure areas to be set up around the larger towns, starting
with the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, where reconstruction can begin.
Instead, large swathes of Helmand turned into battlefields, and there was
virtually no development.

Helmand was responsible for 26 per cent of the national poppy production in
2006. This went up to 44 per cent in the ensuing three years, although there
has been a drop in the latest harvest.

Q. Gordon Brown has asked for more Afghan government troops to be based in
Helmand. Why? And how effective will this be?

A. It is, of course, the eventual aim of Nato that Afghans will provide their
own security. It will be a long time before they are able to. However, the
Prime Minister stated that the Afghan forces should hold ground which
British forces cannot. In saying so he effectively acknowledged that there
are not enough UK forces on the ground.

At present, around 11 per cent of the 85,000-strong Afghan army are based in
Helmand, which has seen almost 50 per cent of the recent fighting in the
country. But, taken at face value, these figures can be misleading. Much of
the Afghan forces are still going through training, and what the British and
the Americans have in Helmand are some of the best trained and equipped of
that number. Also, the reason that the province is now seeing such a high
level of combat is because of large-scale operations carried out by US and
UK forces.

The plan is to expand the total strength of Afghan forces to 134,000, and the
US want allied countries which have not made troop commitments to the
mission to pick up part of the bill. However, even the enlarged Afghan force
seems unlikely to be adequately manned to meet a Taliban emergency which is
drawing increasing numbers of international jihadists and is supported by
elements in the Pakistani military and intelligence service. Iraq, with a
not dissimilar population, has a security force of around 600,000.

Q. What about contributions from other Nato countries?

A. No less than 42 countries contribute to the International Security
Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan. Troops include nationals from the
United Arab Emirates and Estonia.

But many of the contingents, including those from some Nato countries, operate
under caveats which impose severe restrictions on what they are allowed to
do on operations ? rendering them virtually ineffective in combat scenarios.

The UK and US have repeatedly demanded that other Western states should do
more to pull their weight. The worst fatality rate has been suffered by the
Canadians, who have lost 126 personnel out of a force of 2,800, compared to
185 British deaths out of 9,000 and 723 Americans from a force of 60,000.
The deadliest attack on international forces was on a French unit in August
last year; it lost 10 soldiers in an engagement at Sarobi, 40 miles from
Kabul.

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