Nasty jolt from forgotten war

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor Afghanistan has a long history as a graveyard for invading armies. And political editor CHRIS FISHER reports that the death of a British soldier in Helmand will be the first of several as the struggle against the Taliban and al Qaida continues.

CHRIS FISHER, EDP Political Editor

It has become something of a forgotten war. The conflict against the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan has received only a small fraction of the media coverage devoted to the war in Iraq. But it is a long way from over, and that has been underlined by the death of the first British soldier to be killed in action since our forces were sent last month to the province of Helmand in southern Afghanistan.

The grim reality of the situation is that the loss of the soldier, a paratrooper, is likely to be the first of several. The mission in Helmand is especially hazardous. The Taliban has never gone away. And almost five years after the post-September 11 invasion of Afghanistan, which drove it from power, it has regained some - and perhaps much - of its strength. That is especially the case in its old heartland of southern Afghanistan.

Another decidedly uncomfortable fact is that al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden is still on the loose and is believed to be holed up somewhere on the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was of course his masterminding of the 9/11 terror attacks on the US, and the refusal of his Taliban allies to hand him over, that led to the US-led invasion in October 2001 and the replacement of the fundamentalist Taliban regime with a form of democracy under President Hamid Karzai.

The writ of the elected president and parliament does not run far beyond the capital of Kabul, however. Much of the country effectively remains under the thumb of tribal warlords and opium growers and traders, and in a state of widespread lawlessness the Taliban has been able to regroup and rebuild.

The decision to go to war in Afghanistan in 2001 did not divide the West in the way that the military action against Saddam Hussein's Iraq did two years later. Consequently the US and Britain have not suffered the political and military isolation there that they have in Iraq. Many nations have contributed forces to Nato's ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) operations which are being conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.

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There is no doubting, however, that the US and Britain are the two main players in the international operation in Afghanistan. And when the Helmand deployment was announced in the Commons in January, John Reid, who was still defence secretary at that time, did not conceal that our forces were going into particularly hostile territory. "Southern Afghanistan is undeniably a more demanding area in which to operate than either the north or the west. The Taliban remains active. The authority of the Afghan government, and the reach of their security forces, is still weak. The influence of the drugs traffickers is strong,, he said.

One criticism of the deployment is that our forces are being asked to do too much in Helmand. The decision was to send 3300 British troops as part of the Nato force, and that seems to be stretching things more than a little in a large province with a deserved reputation as a Taliban stronghold.

A further argument against the deployment is that it contributes to a more general overloading of British forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and other trouble spots. And a third is that the mission in Helmand is confused.

Dr Reid told the Commons: "We cannot risk Afghanistan again becoming a sanctuary for terrorists. We have seen where that leads, be it in New York or in London. We cannot ignore the opportunity to bring security to a fragile but vital part of the world, and we cannot go on accepting Afghan opium being the source of 90pc of the heroin that is applied to the veins of the young people of this country."

This led Tory shadow defence secretary Liam Fox to ask if the mission in Helmand was to counter insurgents, was entirely for the reconstruction of the country or was principally "anti-narcotics." Dr Reid's answer was that all those things come together.

Is all of this feasible given the troop numbers at Nato's disposal? Might it have been if the US and Britain were not also heavily engaged in Iraq?

It should not be assumed that Yes is the answer to the second question. Afghanistan has long had a reputation as a graveyard for foreign armies. Britain had little to show for engaging in three Anglo-Afghan wars between 1838 and 1919. And the military machine of the Soviet Union came horribly unstuck in Afghanistan after invading the country in 1979.

Might the US and Britain suffer the same fate this time? How can they allow the Taliban to regain control, destroy the fledgling democracy and provide cover once more for bin Laden? Back to Dr Reid: "On September 11, 2001, we were given a brutal lesson in the consequences of leaving Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban," he said.

To let it fall back into their hands is therefore unthinkable. But no one should suppose that preventing that will be anything other than long, difficult and bloody.