Q&A: Why has there been such a rise in the number of UK soldiers killed?

Author: By Kim Sengupta

A: British and US forces are engaged in a large-scale operation to
clear a section of the Helmand river valley of Taliban fighters before
national elections in August. Increased combat brings the risk of increased
casualties. But there was a rise in the number of deaths long before this
operation began. IEDs (improvised explosive devices ? mainly roadside bombs)
used by the Taliban have taken a heavy toll. In the latest wave of killings
? 15 in nine days ? such blasts have killed 12. This was a key part of
insurgents’ tactics in Iraq and there is evidence of this technology being
transferred to Afghanistan. For the insurgents this is a low-risk scenario,
inflicting casualties without open combat with Nato forces.

Q: What is being done to counter the threat of IEDs and mines?

A: This has been the consuming question for the British military and
for which there is still no clear answer. The “Snatch”
Land-Rovers, below, with their relatively light protection, got hit
repeatedly and their use is now restricted. The main problem in replacing
them has been that the Army’s long-term armoured vehicle programme is
hopelessly out of date. A whole series of “off the shelf” vehicles
have been bought from funding under Urgent Operational Requirements. The
Government is right in claiming that a lot of money has been spent on these.
The criticism is that these large sums have not been spent wisely and new
vehicles, like the Vikings and Vectors, are also vulnerable. The truth is
that no armoured vehicle can be 100 per cent safe, with the insurgents
trying to counter upgraded armour and improve their own bomb-making tactics.
Mainline battle tanks have been disabled by roadside bombs; American Abrams
in Iraq and Leopards used by the Danes in Afghanistan being prime examples.

Q: So, are helicopters the answer?

A: It is certainly the case that using air rather than roads will give
the Taliban less to aim at. The tide of Russia’s war in Afghanistan was
changed when the Americans started giving the mujahedin Stinger missiles,
but Western aircraft are now far better protected. This is not, of course,
the first time in recent British history that helicopters have been needed
to counter threats from roadside bombs. Helicopters became the regular means
of transport in South Armagh for that reason, with Bessbrook near Newry
becoming the busiest heliport in Europe. The Americans, who are moving large
numbers into Helmand and Kandahar, are bringing their own fleet, but for the
British shortages will remain, despite the transfer of some Merlins after
the drawdown from Iraq.

Q: What are the issues regarding troop reinforcement?

A: A chronic shortage of troops on the ground has been the fundamental
problem for British land forces in the war. Strategic ground held by the
Taliban would be taken after heavy fighting and then have to be abandoned
because there were not enough numbers to keep it occupied. The enemy would
simply slip back into those positions and re-start attacks. After the
withdrawal from Iraq, the Army high command, backed by the then Defence
Secretary, John Hutton, recommended that up to 2,500 extra troops should be
sent as reinforcement to Helmand. An additional reason for the plea was the
belief that with US forces arriving in Helmand in large numbers, the mission
there was in danger of turning into an American show and it was important to
raise the level of British commitment as well. Gordon Brown, under Treasury
lobbying, turned down the request, agreeing instead to the temporary
deployment of about 700 for the duration of the coming Afghan elections.
After the present row, a review is due after the election period next month.

Q: What does the immediate future hold?

A: Operations by US and British forces are to be scaled back just
before the elections and in the immediate aftermath of the polls so as not
to provoke violence. But both sides see the coming months as a crucial time
in the present conflict, and the Americans, in particular, want to see
significant improvement in the security situation by the end of the year.
The new US commander of Nato forces, General Stanley McChrystal, has made it
clear that the policy is to drive out the Taliban, capture ground and then
hold it. There will, thus, be many more missions and with them, more
British, American and Afghan casualties.

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