British soldiers in Afghanistan are engaged in fighting that is more intense and prolonged than any other conflict during the past 50 years, the British commander of all foreign troops in Afghanistan warned yesterday.
Some British soldiers will be withdrawn from the dangerous region of southern Afghanistan where they have engaged in a series of bloody battles with Taliban fighters, Lieutenant General David Richards told the BBC. He said the British soldiers would be replaced by Afghans.
"This sort of thing hasn't really happened so consistently, I don't think, since the Korean war or the second world war," Gen Richards, Nato's commander in Afghanistan said. "It happened for periods in the Falklands, obviously, and it happened for short periods in the Gulf on both occasions. But this is persistent low-level dirty fighting."
A British soldier from B Company, 3 PARA, holds a weapon during an operation to secure the village of Musakala in Helmand province, Afghanistan, August 6, 2006. British soldiers in Afghanistan are involved in some of the worst and most prolonged fighting since World War II, the British commander of NATO forces in the country said. (REUTERS/Cpl Rob Knight/DMOC/Crown)
As a result, British soldiers were enduring "days and days of intense fighting, being woken up by yet another attack, and they haven't slept for 24 hours", he said.
Ten British soldiers have been killed in clashes with Taliban fighters and their supporters in the Sangin valley, Helmand province, over the past two months. An 11th soldier, Leigh Reeves, 25, from the Royal Logistics Corps, was killed on Wednesday in a traffic accident at Camp Souter in the Afghan capital, Kabul.
British commanders have expressed concern about the vulnerability of British forward bases in the valley and the difficulty in resupplying them. They have also said they need more helicopters and tougher armoured vehicles to withstand attacks by rocket-propelled grenades.
Gen Richards has also said a priority for British soldiers should be to work on a "hearts and minds" campaign through reconstruction work, such as building wells and roads, in measures designed to show Afghans that the presence of foreign troops in their country is benign.
But he also said yesterday that Nato troops needed more helicopters and equipment if they were to succeed in their task. He warned last month that Nato was "running out of time" if it was to meet the expectations of the Afghan people.
The general said he was proud of his troops and the battle was worth the problems. "We can't afford for this country to go back to what it was," he said. "We will soon feel the result of that when London gets attacked from a firm base where [enemy fighters] can do what they want."
The shadow defence secretary, Liam Fox, said Gen Richards's comments were further evidence that "our forces in Afghanistan are stretched and facing capability gaps. We have warned the government from the outset that there were too few helicopters supporting British troops on their mission against the Taliban.
"Our soldiers, who are carrying out their tasks with great commitment, face greater risks travelling by road, so airlift capacity is crucial to mission success. It is clear that our Nato partners need to be doing more, especially in terms of strengthening helicopter lift capacity."
Twelve suspected Taliban fighters and eight police were reported to have died yesterday in fighting in southern Afghanistan. A roadside bomb in Jalalabad killed two Afghans as the top US commander, Gen Karl Eikenberry, was visiting an American base in the city.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006