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200th Death in Afghanistan will Raise Questions over UK Strategy
The Ministry of Defence is preparing itself for an outpouring of emotion – and possibly recrimination – as British forces in Afghanistan stand on the verge of losing their 200th soldier.
Landmark casualty figures are a sensitive issue and the total has been reached in a comparatively short time. All but five of those who have died in Afghanistan have lost their lives since the Government decided to send a brigade to Helmand province in the spring of 2006.
Judging by the comments made by ministers and military commanders at the time, they did not foresee a campaign that would, within three years, claim the lives of so many members of the Armed Forces.
When the British military first became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, the role of troops was limited and over the next five years there were no significant confrontations with the Taleban.
In fact, there was no sense of a war at all after the Taleban had been toppled in 2001, although large numbers of special forces troops were engaged in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fighters, which led to exchanges of fire.
The British role, however, over the following years was confined to logistic support in Kabul and providing military backing for a provincial reconstruction team in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan.
The declared objective of deploying troops to Helmand in 2006, as part of Nato’s expanding remit to southern and western Afghanistan, was to spread stability to an area that was historically the Taleban’s spiritual homeland.
Until the arrival of Britain’s 3,300-strong 16 Air Assault Brigade, there had been only about 100 American soldiers in the province, based at Lashkar Gah, the capital. They were helping to run a US provincial reconstruction team, and rarely ventured elsewhere in the province. The Taleban were left to their own devices.
In hindsight, and with the 200th British death sadly imminent, the decision to send just 3,300 troops was dangerously shortsighted. It was never going to be enough for a province the size of Helmand.
The Taleban reacted ferociously to the arrival of the British troops, who started patrolling in areas where the insurgents had previously dominated. The stretched force was subjected to formation Taleban attacks at every outpost where British soldiers were located — Musa Qala, Sangin, Garmsir, Nawzad, Gereshk. Casualties proliferated.
Now, in 2009, Britain has 9,140 troops in Afghanistan, about 6,200 of them in Helmand, and the province is awash with thousands of US Marines and troops from Denmark, Estonia and other coalition members. But the Taleban appear to have an inexhaustible supply of reinforcements and they fight in the same way the Mujahidin fought the Russians in the 1980s — with territorial cunning and know-how and by intimidating the locals to protect them and provide refuge.
The landmark of 200 deaths — 195 of them in the last 41 months — will reinforce the growing realisation that, like the Russians before them, the British are learning the hard way about the resilience of Afghan insurgents.