Page last updated at 14:53 GMT, Thursday, 26 January 2006

Facing multiple enemies

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News

The 3,300 extra troops being sent to southern Afghanistan have a dangerous mission, up against the Taleban, al-Qaeda and drugs warlords. So, how will they cope?

There are few soldiers as battle-hardened as those of the 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Soldier
Major exercises form preparation
Kosovo, Macedonia, Iraq and Afghanistan already figure on its burgeoning CV from the last few years.

Their combination of air assault infantry, parachute troops and helicopters will play a key part in the UK's new mission in Helmand, southern Afghanistan.

The British task to reconstruct, strengthen security and government, and curb the opium supply which makes much of the world's heroin, would alone be difficult enough.

But they have to do this while defending themselves from insurgents. A string of suicide bombings have recently claimed dozens of lives, including Canada's top diplomat in the country.

You don't really know who your friends are
Tim Ripley
Defence analyst

Although this method of attack is usually associated with al-Qaeda, the Taleban and drug dealers have also adopted it, which makes combating it all the more problematic, said Tim Ripley, a defence analyst at Jane's Defence Weekly magazine.

"This is a scenario where you don't really know who your friends are. The British will be building up the Afghanistan government and training the new police force to look after itself but are [the police] really in the pay of the drugs dealers themselves?

"There are drug dealers, the Taleban and al-Qaeda, but you don't really know who's who because they each have a finger in every pie and it's a pretty challenging scenario."

One of their biggest challenges will be the huge space and distances, encompassing deserts and some of the world's biggest mountains, said Mr Ripley. Helicopters will be vital and unusually, communication methods could include satellite radios.

Counselling

The 16 Air Assault Brigade has been preparing by undertaking exercises all over the UK, including Salisbury, the Scottish Highlands and Northumberland, he said. And its experience, bolstered by its no-fear culture, will help eradicate the nerves.

"There's probably 20% who haven't done it before and they will be out to prove they're up for it and can uphold the tradition of the regiment.

"To a certain extent the paratroopers are a macho organisation with a 'can-do' attitude."

Any servicemen feeling the strain as they anticipate a mission of this nature do have places to turn.

16 Air Assault Brigade insignia
16 Air Assault Brigade will be involved
The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) is a national charity which helps serving and ex-serving men and women.

Kate Burgess, its director of social work, said: "Whenever large numbers of troops are posted overseas the demand for the emotional and practical support we provide often increases.

"Separation can be hard for families and SSAFA Forces Help is ready to meet their needs through our network of professional staff and volunteers.

"We can also offer assistance to those who are affected by this announcement both serving and their families through our Confidential Support Line which operates every day of the year."

A London-based expert on Afghanistan, who did not wish to be named, said there would be nerves but the mental preparation was thorough, and the troops would also have been given a good knowledge of Afghan culture before they went.

Poppy fields in Afghanistan
Opium is a livelihood for many farmers
"This is not considered some kind of deeply patriotic duty, it's a job and I think that's the difference between the British and American soldier, who is emotionally involved with the task.

"The British take a more dispassionate and methodical approach. The training is extensive and it's probably as good as you can get in removing any of the doubts in soldiers' minds."

But hopes of shutting down the supply of opium, which drives half the world's heroin trade, are slim, he said.

And the eradication method favoured by some people was probably not the answer because it could drive farmers into poverty, and move supply elsewhere, so a more intelligent solution was required.

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