Monday, 7 December 2009

Hundredth British fatality in Afghan conflict

The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The epitaph sums up just how news of the 100th fatality in Afghanistan will have been received by the British Army and at the Military of Defence back in London.

In the Portland Stone building on Whitehall Gardens - where the lights have not been completely dimmed in the eight years since British Marines first help secure Bagrham airport in December 2001 - every death affects the mood and the morale of staff. Each death gives pause for thought but the shooting of a soldier from the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglican Regiment earlier today marked a particularly grim milestone in the war in Afghanistan. This year has been the deadliest year for British forces since the Falklands War in 1982.

Britain is not alone taking the hits. More than 40 US servicemen were killed in August in the run-up to the deeply controversial presidential elections which resulted in a tainted President Hamid Karzai continuing to nominally govern the country from a fortified palace in Kabul.

The extra security for the election campaign does not properly account for the rising death toll. A deadly and successful switch in tactics by the Taliban has been the main cause of the huge spike in casualties in 2009.

Having learned that they cannot take on well armed Nato troops in pitched battles, particularly when airstrikes can be called in at short notice, the Taliban have changed to using increasingly sophisticated home-made bombs against the western forces.

About three-quarters of the 100 UK deaths in Afghanistan in 2009 are thought to have been caused by insurgent-improvised explosive devices (IEDs). British troops have been hit particularly hard because nearly all of them are based in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and major centre of opium production.

The growing complexity of the IEDs suggests that the Taliban are getting help from either state sponsors or - more likely - experienced Islamist insurgents who have learned their trade in Iraq or Chechnya.

Government critics have blamed a shortage of helicopters for the high number of UK deaths but for counter-insurgency the amry argue is vital for troops to move among the local population. As the vehicles get more protection, the bombs get bigger and no vehicle is invulnerable.

By the time the British military death toll in Iraq reached 100 in January 2006, there had only been five fatalities in Afghanistan as British paratroops prepared to move into Helmland.

John Reid, the former Defence Secretary still bristles when his comment, that he would be "perfectly happy" if UK troops left Helmand three years later "without firing a shot", is still quoted back at him out of context. Whatever the semantics more British bullets have been fired in Helmand that in any fighting since WWII.

There were 39 British deaths in the Afghan conflict in 2006, 42 in 2007 and 51 in 2008. The death toll soared this year as UK troops launched major missions over the summer, like Panther’s Claw which claimed ten British lives, to provide security ahead of August’s presidential and provincial elections.

The surge tactic is to be deployed on a greater scale next year, hitting the Taliban even harder to buy time to train up vast numbers of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police recruits and to hand over district by district control. Taliban resistance to that plan, which they have promised to repay in blood, inevitably means that soldiers, families, the politicians and the public must brace themselves for other dark milestones.

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