Confusion over future role for British troops

Author: By Kim Sengupta in Nad-e-Ali, Helmand, and Michael Savage

Mr Ainsworth suggested Afghan troops could take the lead in operations in as little as a year. “I genuinely believe that in the next year or so, we will be able to show a degree of progress,” he told the BBC. “It won’t be a situation where we’ll be able to pull back. But we will increasingly see the Afghan national army taking the front. We will be more in a mentoring and training situation, supporting them, giving them the steel, capability and the knowledge to be able to do the job. But they will be taking the lead.”

His political opponents quickly seized on the remarks. Liam Fox, the shadow defence secretary, demanded clarification from Mr Ainsworth. “Has the Government made an agreement with the Americans to hand over Helmand to them?” Dr Fox said. “If so we should be told about it. Or is it just spin designed to detract from the failure of the Government to fully equip our troops in Afghanistan?”

Nick Harvey, the defence spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said Mr Ainsworth’s comments did not give a true picture of the progress being made in Afghanistan. “What our troops and the public need is complete honesty about our mission in Afghanistan,” he said. “Rather than trying to sway public opinion with false optimism, Bob Ainsworth must admit we need a fundamental change of gear, and a shift from a purely military campaign to one which focuses on achieving peace through meaningful political engagement.”

The Ministry of Defence later said Mr Ainsworth had only been outlining the importance of training Afghan troops, as the British combat death toll rose. Now the war has claimed the life of the 204th British serviceman. Three died in an explosion yesterday morning while on patrol near Sangin. They were from the from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. A day earlier the regiment lost another soldier during a patrol nearby. A soldier from the 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh also died on Saturday of wounds at the Royal College Of Defence Medicine in Selly Oak, Birmingham; his vehicle had been hit by a roadside bomb, at Musa Qala.

Of the 204 who have died, 66 have been killed so far this year, compared with 51 for the whole of 2008, 42 in 2007 and 39 in 2006.

In effect, Mr Ainsworth’s comments signify Britain’s role training Afghan security forces and focusing on reconstruction in selected areas. The latter has been made possible by the arrival of about 12,000 US combat forces in southern Afghanistan.

Major Ben Ramsay, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said: “There will be time for tears and beers when we go back home. At the moment, what we need to do is stay focused. I think the young soldiers here are doing extraordinarily well. I also think we have a duty to be here in Afghanistan. Why we went to war in Iraq, I do not know; that was a decision above my pay grade. But again, I think we, as soldiers, did the best we could.”

Many British operations are now led by American bomb-disposal units with specialist equipment sweeping the road ahead. Dozens of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) have been Detected and disarmed. Insurgent bombmakers have been experimenting with different types of devices, but, in the main, the tendency appears to be to packing in more and more explosives to counter better-armoured vehicles.

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