In for the long haul in Afghanistan

JON WELCH The death of two more soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment brings the British death toll in Afghanistan to 70. With casualties mounting and no end to the conflict in sight, some believe it is time to withdraw. Are they right? JON WELCH reports.

JON WELCH

It was the war they said could not be won: as British and American forces prepared to go into action against the Taliban in October 2001, experts warned victory was anything but certain and the allies could be sucked into a conflict lasting for years.

After all, Afghanistan had been dubbed the "graveyard of empires" on account of the number of foreign armies that had come to grief there, despite superior military assets.

When the Afghan capital Kabul fell just a few weeks later, it was presented as a major victory, with many falsely believing the war was all but over.

Soon afterwards, visiting Nato ambassadors were briefed by the United States Central Command that the Taliban were a spent force.

How wrong they were. Nearly six years on, war is still raging, with a mounting death toll among British troops - including soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment - prompting mount-ing disquiet at home.

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Two more Royal Anglians have been killed in the last four days, bringing the number of British servicemen killed in operations against the Taliban to 70.

Private Tony Rawson, 27, of Dagenham, Essex was killed on Friday morning as he inspected a local irrigation project and came under fire from Taliban fighters.

Another soldier from the regiment was killed in a separate attack on Saturday afternoon, which injured five of his comrades. The dead man is expected to be named today.

His death brings to seven the number of British troops killed in action in Afghanistan since July 12. If the death toll were to continue at this rate, 42 battle-group personnel would be killed in the next six months.

That would give a frontline soldier beginning a tour of duty in the country a one in 36 chance of being killed, making it even more dangerous than Iraq where the figure is one in 50.

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat leader, has called on the government to urgently review its policies in both Iraq and Afghanistan "before the death toll rises further".

He said: "These statistics are deeply saddening, above all because they represent personal tragedies for hundreds of British families. But they are also an indictment of a government which has no clear idea how to get British forces home without further loss of life."

Last week Afghanistan's embattled president Hamid Karzai admitted security in his country had "definitely deteriorated". Nearly six years after hostilities began, there is no clear end in sight.

Brigadier John Lorimer, the commander of British forces in Helmand province, has predicted that the British Army deployment to Afghanistan will last at least as long as the 38 years that it took them to withdraw from Northern Ireland.

British ambassador Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles has said the UK presence in Afghanistan will need to remain for decades to help rebuild the country.

Opponents of the war argue that the time is right for Britain to withdraw, but such a move could have disastrous consequences, according to Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, shadow minister for foreign affairs and a military historian.

"If we decide to withdraw from Afghanistan this is a real victory for Islamic extremists," he said.

"There could be a knock-on effect in Pakistan that would be detrimental to our long-term interests and send shockwaves through the entire Indian sub-continent. You could have an Islamist government in charge with a nuclear capability."

Mr Simpson said he believed the war in Afghanistan was worthwhile.

"I still think it is and I think those British servicemen out there believe it is as well," he said.

"This was a country that before we directly intervened was being tyrann-ised by the worst kind of Islamist regime.

"There were no human rights."

It may be worthwhile, but is it winnable? "It's not winnable if one is talking about a military campaign like the second world war in which the Taliban will completely surrender," said Mr Simpson.

"I think that's unlikely, given that they can operate out of relatively safe bases in Pakistan and General Musharaf's government can't control those border areas: they have tried, just as we did. We fought campaigns there in the late Thirties and it was a score draw.

"Our problem is we are operating in one of the most difficult areas, not least because the Taliban can keep nipping into tribal areas in Pakistan.

"What we can do is make it incredibly difficult to operate, particularly in Helmand, by a combination of military action with our allies and economic and social pressure.

"If you go hell for leather out to destroy the Taliban by conventional military means - search and destroy, use of air power at every opportunity, heavy artillery - the danger is that, given they are operating amongst local people, you end up killing those people.

"The British approach is to avoid doing that: it's one of the tenets of our campaign.

"What British military commanders and our very competent ambassador in Kabul have said is that the way to win is to provide stability and get local people to reject the Taliban. That means we're in it for the long haul - at least five to 10 years."

Mr Simpson said one strategy for the Taliban would be to work on public opinion in Britain in order to persuade the British government that the war was simply not worth pursuing.

He acknowledged that public opinion towards the war was "very fragile" because people saw it as inextricably linked with the more controversial subject of Britain's involvement in Iraq, and he called on the government to do more to stress the importance of the campaign.

"The public sees the effect of casualties and I think they have forgotten the reason we went in there," he said.

"They quite naturally have been horrified by the level of casualties. The government fails to do what it has to do in reminding the public why we are there and the intensity of the fighting there.

"The public have become cynical about government explanations. There are a great deal of negative feelings about President Bush and the United States, and the fact that casualties have increased. The public wonders whether it is worth it.

"This is not Northern Ireland: the fighting is of an intensity we haven't seen since the Korean war. If you're involved in that you're going to take casualties.

"There is this feeling amongst service people and their families that the public does not appreciate what they are doing.

"I think there's probably an element of truth in that, because the public's experience of this kind of warfare is now only in the minds of current servicemen and their families, those who have recently left the service and people of my parents' generation who remember the second world war."

Defence secretary Des Browne has defended Britain's continued presence in Afghanistan, despite the rising death toll. He said a "long-term commitment" was essential to prevent its return to being a training ground for terrorists.

Mr Browne said UK forces were doing an "exceptionally good job" in Afghanistan, but they needed to be supported by the growth of governance in the country.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I have never under-estimated the degree of difficulty we face here, but we are making progress."

He said the troops were fighting to ensure that Afghanistan has the "best future" it can have.

"We are in Afghanistan... to ensure that a country which has gone through three decades or more of dreadful violence, lost two million of its own people securing its own freedom, has the opportunity that its citizens deserve to have the best future they can have in an already challenging environment.

"And to ensure that this ungoverned space, as it had become after 30 years of that sort of violence, and had become a training ground for terrorists, never again becomes a training ground for terrorists."

Mr Browne conceded that production of opium poppies had increased, but said successes were being made in other aspects of Afghan life.

"We are beginning to make a difference but it's not an easy thing to do," he said.

"The fact of the matter is it is a long-term commitment and our people are doing an exceptionally good job there but it has to be complemented by the growth of governance from the Afghans themselves.

"They have to take increasing responsibility not just for security but to hold the stability which we can generate."

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