UK’s Afghanistan role ‘set to be scaled down’

Author: By James Tapsfield, PA

Mr Ainsworth said that reaching the sad milestone, after the 200th and 201st
soldiers lost their lives yesterday, was “grim”.

But he went on: “I genuinely believe that in the next year or so that we will
be able to show a degree of progress.

“It will not be at a situation where we will 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 a training situation, you know, giving
them the steer and the capacity and the knowledge to be able to do the job
that they will need to do.”

The remarks, made on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, were greeted with scepticism
by opposition parties, who accused the Government of spinning to try to
cover up its errors.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: “Has the Government made an agreement
with the Americans to hand over Helmand to them?

“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?”

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said it was not “remotely
possible” for UK troops to leave the front line within a year, and called on
ministers to be “honest”.

“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, co-operation and progress,” he added.

One of the latest casualties was from 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh, and died
yesterday at the Royal College of Defence Medicine, in Selly Oak, West
Midlands. His vehicle patrol had been hit by a roadside bomb near Musa
Qal’eh in Helmand Province on Thursday morning.

The other serviceman was from 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers.
He was caught up in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Sangin in
Helmand Province yesterday. Both men’s next of kin have been informed, and
they are expected to be named tomorrow.

The death toll for this month now stands at 10, after July saw the loss of 22
lives – the bloodiest spell for UK forces since operations began in October
2001. Altogether, 201 service personnel have died in the campaign.

Gordon Brown expressed his “sorrow” at the news, but insisted that the mission
in Afghanistan remained “vital”.

“In these moments of sorrow and sadness, we must never forget why we are in
Afghanistan and why people are making the sacrifice that they are making,”
he told reporters.

“Three quarters of the terrorist plots that hit Britain derive from the
mountain areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is to make Britain safe
and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honour our
commitment to maintain a stable Afghanistan.”

Amid controversy over equipment shortages – particularly helicopters – the
Prime Minister also pledged that the Government would provide support.

“I want everybody to know today that every effort that we make is to ensure
the best security and the best equipment for our troops,” he said.

“That’s why we’ve increased dramatically the resources we are spending in
Afghanistan to deal with this new kind of threat, which is the roadside
bomb, the electronic devices, the guerrilla warfare being practised by the
Taliban.”

Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan between 2003
and 2004, insisted he still believed the campaign was protecting the public
in this country.

But he said that passing 200 deaths could sow seeds of doubt in the minds of
the British public.

“The thing it changes, really, is the way people in this country look at
what’s going on and I think there will be questions asked about whether what
we’re achieving in Afghanistan, and what we’re hoping to do in Afghanistan,
is worth this number of British soldiers’ lives,” he told the BBC.

Yesterday the Ministry of Defence named three British troops killed providing
security for a meeting ahead of Afghanistan’s crunch presidential elections.

Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton, 23, of 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, was
wounded in the initial attack in Sangin on Thursday.

Captain Mark Hale, 42, and Rifleman Daniel Wild, 19, both from 2nd Battalion
The Rifles, were carrying him to a helicopter landing zone when there was a
second explosion, killing L/Bdr Hatton and Rfn Wild. Capt Hale died of his
injuries later in hospital.

Their identities were released as the Taliban signalled their determination to
disrupt the polls, due to be held on Thursday, by staging a car bomb attack
near the British embassy in Kabul.

Four people were killed, but no UK service personnel or embassy staff were
hurt in the blast outside the headquarters of the Nato-led International
Security Assistance Force.

The MoD will issue injury figures covering the last two weeks of July tomorrow
morning, which are expected to reflect fierce fighting during the offensive
against the Taliban.

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