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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 19:24 GMT 20:24 UK
Delay issue over Afghan mission
3 Para troops in Helmand (photo: Cpl Rob Knight)
3 Para are back in the UK after a six month tour of duty
A British commander in Afghanistan has said UK military operations in the south of the country have been affected by the war in Iraq.

Brigadier Ed Butler said that the mission underway in Helmand now could have started in 2002.

And he also admitted that 3 Para Battle Group had nearly run out of rations during recent fighting.

But he said the delay in starting work in Helmand would not stop victory and the end of the Taleban threat.

Brig Butler, commander of 16 Air Assault (including 3 Para), was briefing journalists in London following the end of his six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan.

His comments came as British troops pulled out of Musa Qala in Helmand, which has been a centre of Taleban insurgency in recent months.

I think we may have marked time and I think we are starting to make up for that time
Brig Ed Butler

Troops have withdrawn to an area outside the town to allow what locals have called a "ceasefire". However, the military has not used this term.

He said the Taleban had been "tactically defeated" in northern Helmand and he was "staggered and humbled" by his soldiers' courage.

However, he said on occasions his men, while never actually starving, had found themselves down to "belt rations".

Brig Jerry Thomas took over command from Brig Butler on Sunday as the 3 Para Battle Group was replaced by the Royal Marines of 3 Commando Brigade.

Brig Butler acknowledged there had been an effect on operations because of not deploying earlier.

Taleban fear

"We could have carried on in 2002 in the same way we have gone about business now," he said.

"Have the interim four years made a difference? I think realistically they have.

"It doesn't mean that we will not achieve what we set out to do. We have not slipped back.

"I think we may have marked time and I think we are starting to make up for that time."

And he warned there was always a chance that the Taleban could regroup in the spring and that it was vital that Nato pressed on with reconstruction projects to win local support

A considerable number of casualties had been suffered by the battle group, Brig Butler said, but they had been fewer than expected.

The commander said the pull-out from Musa Qala was a positive sign of Afghans delivering their own security.

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