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Last Updated: Monday, 7 August 2006, 14:38 GMT 15:38 UK
Tough start for British forces
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Private Andrew Barrie Cutts of the Royal Logistics Corps has become the 10th British soldier to die in Afghanistan in two months.

Private Barrie Cutts from the Royal Logistics Corp was the 10th British soldier to  be killed in Afghanistan
Private Cutts was the 10th British soldier to be killed in Afghanistan

His convoy came under fire on its way out of Musa Qala, a remote and dangerous town in Helmand, after a successful mission to re-supply the fighting force defending the government district compound from attack.

It was the same place where three British troops were killed last week when they were ambushed by Taleban fighters.

With every death the questions are asked again: Are there enough troops? Are they overstretched? Are things already going badly wrong?

Former soldiers write opinion articles, unnamed commanders are quoted in the papers as complaining about a lack of troops, or that British soldiers are "exhausted" by their mission.

And the fact is the British forces are spread more thinly than they intended.

Security plan

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assumed command of the south and of the troops in Helmand last week, and it has a plan to bring security to lawless parts of the country.

That plan involves "development zones" - drawing a line around one area in each province and ploughing resources into "securing" it with fighting troops.

Afghan security forces would then be used to set up checkpoints - to restrict movement of insurgents inside the zone - and then development agencies can come in and work in a secure environment.

Other mobile forces extend out, carrying out offensive operations against the insurgents - keeping them on the back foot.

British troops in Musa Qala, Afghanistan

Then, the argument goes, things get better inside the secure zone, the people support the international force and the government, their lives improve; those outside the development area see what's going on, want the same, and the zones expand.

It's a long-term plan but it doesn't appear to fit the situation the British forces in Helmand have got themselves into.

They began with this central area - stretching from the provincial capital Lashkar Gah to Gereshk along a section of the Helmand river - but then they were drawn into the other district centres.

The Taleban fighters were threatening to overrun government compounds where the police and the administration were based.

Intense battles

Under pressure not to lose control of these district centres while so many British troops were on the ground - and at the insistence of the governor - they deployed to these towns to protect the compounds.

For the last two months small groups of British soldiers have been holed up in Sangin, Nowzad, Musa Qala and Kajaki at times getting involved in intensive battles for hours at a time and with fire coming in from all sides.

British troops in Musa Qala, Afghanistan
Four British soldiers have been killed in "remote and dangerous" Musa Qala

Major operations are launched - hundreds of troops flood in to secure the compound and the fighting stops in that area.

But then it starts up again somewhere else.

The Taleban fighters just melt into the population and it becomes very difficult to know who is the enemy.

Then gradually the security situation declines again and there's the need for another operation - often with a re-supply or a rotation out for the troops.

They have been working hard - the fighting force which numbers only 700 to 800 is constantly being deployed without the usual down time.

More fighting troops are on their way and in a few months the Marines will relieve the Paras, but still there's the argument more resources may be needed.

Difficult start

The commanders on the ground believe things are generally going their way - it was always going to be difficult, they say, and in every exchange with the insurgents the Taleban fighters come off worse.

British Lt General David Richards assumed control of southern Afghanistan a week ago as ISAF commander.

In that time four British soldiers and four Canadians have been killed and at least 10 troops injured.

It's not a good start and he will be thinking hard about how things are going on the ground and whether he needs to refocus the mission in Helmand to be more in line with his strategy of focusing on one area rather than many.

In other words withdraw from the district centres, which is being discussed.

But pulling British troops back would give the Taleban a sense they had scored a victory.

And that's not the message you want to give local people when you're trying to persuade them the government and the international force are going to overcome the Taleban and, through military strength, improve their lives.




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