Page last updated at 20:53 GMT, Sunday, 8 June 2008 21:53 UK

Peace mission that became battle

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

British troops in Afghanistan
British troops found themselves defending small bases in isolated towns

Two statements just four months apart in 2006, one made by a politician, the other by a general, help explain how the British involvement in Afghanistan went from being a peacekeeping mission to reaching the terrible milestone of 100 servicemen dead.

The first comment came from John Reid, the then secretary of state for defence, on a visit to the country in April that year as UK forces first arrived in Helmand.

"We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years' time without firing one shot, because our mission is to protect the reconstruction," he told a press conference in Kabul.

In August the same year the commander of Nato's International Security Assistance Force at the time, the British General Sir David Richards, painted a picture of what was actually happening in Helmand.

"Days and days of intense fighting - being woken up by yet another attack when they haven't slept for 24 hours," he said.

"This sort of thing hasn't really happened so consistently I don't think since the Korean war or the Second World War. This is persistent low level, dirty fighting."

'Like the Alamo'

British forces first arrived in Afghanistan in November 2001 after the aerial bombardment of the country and Northern Alliance fighters had driven the Taleban government out of control and into hiding.

In the four-and-a-half years from then until June 2006 just seven troops died - only two of them as a result of enemy action.

But the summer of 2006 was when it all changed.

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Arriving in Helmand province - then unknown territory - they faced a more determined and numerous enemy than they'd expected.

A few hundred combat troops found themselves defending small bases in isolated towns scattered across the province with too few helicopters to effectively re-supply them, and being attacked day and night by huge groups of Taleban fighters trying to overrun their positions.

"It's the worst place I've been to," said Corporal Trevor Coult of the Royal Irish Regiment, decorated for bravery in Iraq.

"Baghdad's like a walk in the park compared to here. It's mainly gun battles, fierce fire fighting from leaving camp to getting back into camp, it's like the Alamo."

Nimrod crash

By that September, 15 more British troops had died, all but one in combat, and dozens had been injured.

Then came the biggest single loss of life since the Falklands war. A Nimrod reconnaissance plane caught fire and crashed in Kandahar.

With 14 servicemen dead it was a costly accident and as the coffins arrived back home, carried shoulder-high from the ramp of a military transport plane, Britain started to understand what war in Afghanistan meant.

I'd be silly and na´ve to say I wasn't scared out here
Corporal Pete McKinley

The Paras looked tired and drawn as they left Sangin, one of the most intensely contested towns in Helmand, handing over to the Royal Marines to the sound of artillery shells and incoming fire.

With the marines came new armoured vehicles and extra troops which helped them become more mobile.

In the winter of 2006 they started to take the offensive, but still men were dying as they carried out operations pushing up through the Taleban-controlled Helmand river valley.

As new brigades came in every six months, British forces gradually started to make military progress, restricting the movement of Taleban fighters, gaining ground and then trying to win people over, something at the heart of the counter-insurgency strategy.

Special forces operations killed important commanders as more troops arrived in the south.

Death toll

But slowly the number of dead steadily increased.

By the end of 2006 it had reached a total of 44 - a year later the number of British losses in Afghanistan had almost doubled to 86 and hundreds had been injured, many losing limbs.

Now the strategy of the insurgents appears to be changing, with fewer fights and more bombs being left by the side of the road - Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) - booby traps detonated by home-made pressure pads or by wire hundreds of metres away.

This is how most British troops are now being killed and it's the biggest fear among the Paras of 16 Air Assault Brigade, back again two years after their first deployment began.

"Before we came out here the IED threat went up big style and a lot of the lads got a bit nervous," said Corporal Pete McKinley, who was awarded a Military Cross for bravery in 2006.

"I know everybody would rather fight someone on the ground and not just get blown up in a wagon and there aren't many helicopters so we have to move across by road sometimes. I'd be silly and naive to say I wasn't scared out here."

Now 100 British troops have died fighting an insurgency war with no end in sight.

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