Page last updated at 02:00 GMT, Monday, 9 June 2008 03:00 UK

Long fight ahead for British troops

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent

British Royal Marine Commandos
British troops in Afghanistan face a long and complex task
One hundred British lives lost in Afghanistan - a grim milestone that will lead many in Britain to ask: is the mission worth this cost in lives, and does the UK - and Nato - have the right strategy in Afghanistan, and will it stay the course?

With some four million bullets fired by British forces in one year alone, and almost 2bn spent on Afghanistan since 2001, those questions are becoming more urgent.

Britain deployed troops to Afghanistan shortly after the attacks of 11 September, 2001. Few then thought that British forces would still be in Afghanistan in far larger numbers seven years on, nor that they would be involved in some of the fiercest fighting British forces have seen in decades, as part of Nato's International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

British forces have fought hard and bravely in Helmand Province since 2006, defeating the Taleban time and time again in ferocious firefights. 16 Air Assault Brigade has returned, with the Parachute Regiment now challenging the Taleban in strongholds such as Zabul.

If the British people think there is a point to the current operations in Afghanistan, then the figure of 100 deaths ... is sustainable
Dr Michael Clarke, Royal United Services Institute

The aim of the almost 8,000 British troops now based in Helmand Province is to help stabilise the country on behalf of the elected Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, a man in whom many western and Afghan hopes have been vested, and to ensure that al-Qaeda and related groups can never again use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch attacks on the west.

Taleban disrupted

There is no doubt that in military terms, the Taleban cannot hope to out-fight Nato forces. But they can hope to outlast them and reclaim fresh influence.

It is clear that Nato's multi-national forces (53,000 in all) have a limited window of opportunity in which to ensure security in Afghanistan and give President Karzai's government and its nascent police force and army the time to establish the rule of law and a functioning form of civil society across this sprawling nation of competing tribal loyalties and distant regions.

Afghanistan remains a nation deeply scarred by decades of war, and is still one of the world's most under-developed countries, with many of its brightest and best having long since moved or fled abroad.

Hearts and minds

One of the key elements of the UK's counter-insurgency strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, by trying to improve their daily lives and security and demonstrate that life is getting better.

But, although gains have been made on some fronts, such as the number of children able to go to school, that feeling of 'security' is proving elusive, with some Afghans saying they have lost faith in their central government, seeing it as both ineffective and corrupt.

Afghan beggar
Afghanistan is still one of the world's most under-developed countries

The other problem that military success has brought is that, instead of confronting British forces head on, the insurgents are changing tactics, using suicide bombs or planting roadside bombs, and intimidating local people - including extorting money - while exerting a shadowy influence over local affairs that western military might is finding harder to root out and challenge directly.

Fed up

At an Afghan shura, or tribal gathering I attended in December, weary elders suggested that they were fed up with both the Taleban and western forces, wishing only for peace and to be left alone. They did not appear tremendously optimistic that the presence of western forces would soon guarantee their other needs - for electricity, clean water and healthcare.

The 'comprehensive approach' that Britain has put its faith in - security, governance and development, with the British Army, the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development working in tandem - is proving much slower to bear fruit on the reconstruction and civil side.

Because of concerns for safety, few western development workers or officials feel able to operate freely outside the relative safety of Kabul, leading to a lack of visible progress on the ground.

The American approach - giving its military commanders on the ground the cash for immediate use in smaller, local projects - stands in stark contrast to the British method of channelling development funds through the Afghan government to focus on the longer-term.

Drugs

The standard of government, both local and central, also remains a real concern. Corruption and inefficiency are rife.

Unless the Afghan economy can be weaned off drugs and crucial infrastructure such as roads, power stations and water plants built soon, individual battles may be won, but the wider war risks being lost.

Meanwhile, squabbling between Nato allies over commitments, troop numbers and caveats for some forces serving in other provinces have also led to questions being raised - not least by the US - over Nato's resolve in Afghanistan, and its ability to stay the course and its members' willingness to match fine words with funds and boots on the ground.

Differences also remain on the need to bring the more 'reconcilable' elements of the Taleban into talks and the wider political process, an area on which the Americans and the Afghan government remain deeply sensitive, though some strongly believe that has to form part of the longer-term solution for Afghanistan.

Blood and treasure

The British Ambassador to Kabul, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, and Defence Secretary Des Browne have both spoken of the need for the UK to stay on - in some form - in Afghanistan for a long time.

However, the question remains: is there enough public support and understanding in Britain for the mission in Afghanistan, and the high cost in blood and treasure, and is the political will there to stay the course, even if that takes decades?

Dr Michael Clarke, head of the Royal United Services Institute, says: "If the British people think there is a point to the current operations in Afghanistan, then the figure of 100 deaths - although a tragic milestone - is sustainable. However, if they do not, and view the losses as pointless or avoidable, then even a single death is one too many."



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