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
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
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.