BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Have Helmand troops been told to lie low during election?

Mark Urban | 17:58 UK time, Thursday, 29 April 2010


Britain has not lost a soldier in Afghanistan since the day after Gordon Brown called the general election - that's more than three weeks.

Yet the fatality on 7 April was the third in a week, and throughout the early part of this year the grim news came frequently, sometimes five times in a week.

The Ministry of Defence has been applying an election "purdah" to journalists' embeds or statements by senior officers about current operations there.

Has it also ordered the troops to limit their activities so as to avoid casualties in this sensitive period?

Senior people deny that explicit orders of this kind have been given. Is that right, or could such a change in the pattern of operations have taken place without it being formally ordered?

Lucky streak?

At first I wondered whether a troop rotation between brigades in Helmand might explain it. But commanders always deny that there is any loss in "effect" when an experienced unit leaves and newcomers arrive.

Indeed it is only fair to observe that a new battalion is often more likely to incur casualties than not.

So has Britain's Task Force Helmand just been lucky since 7 April? The recent period of good fortune could of course be broken at any time, with some family receiving the dread news from uniformed officers at the door.

Luck can undoubtedly play a part in avoiding fatalities - just talk to the soldiers of A Company, 2nd Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment who we've filmed with many times over recent months.
They're recently returned from six months in Sangin. The 3 Rifles battle group that A Company was part of lost 30 soldiers, but the company itself lost none. There were certainly in plenty of firefights alongside their 3 Rifles comrades - many put their survival down to luck.

Could good luck really explain the past three-plus weeks across the whole of the British area in Helmand?

Good fortune has certainly played a role, because the soldiers would still need it even if some order to avoid operations that might cause casualties had indeed been given.

Harvest time

Talking to people at a Royal United Services Institute conference on Afghanistan in London today, I did hear an interesting explanation that goes beyond chance.

It is currently the season for harvesting the opium poppy in southern Afghanistan and that usually produces a lull in fighting.

One Nato official confirmed that reports of violent incidents were "down somewhat" across the south of Afghanistan.

Many gunmen take time off from shooting or laying bombs to help in the harvest. With more people working the fields, there's also a greater danger of the insurgents killing villagers at this time with attacks aimed at Nato.

I'm not sure I believe that the poppy harvest entirely explains the lower British fatality rate since there are still circumstances in which patrols could be attacked.

That and good luck though are important ingredients in explaining the current situation.

But I cannot help remembering hearing tell that in the run up to the last British general election, the British Army in Iraq did try to avoid major set piece operations that might lead to a flare up in fighting.

So I'm keeping an open mind about the current situation in Afghanistan.


  • Comment number 1.

    I suspect the Mark Urban is right, there's probably no "official" order to limit operations, but a "nod and a wink".
    But whatever the reason we should be thankful.
    Perhaps the lull will extend to after election day.
    Of course the big decision to follow the election is whether British troops will be moved from Helmand to the "Bear-pit" of Kandahar, where our troops with have to conduct street-fighting always costly!
    this may very well be the calm before the storm!

  • Comment number 2.

    milliband hasn't told the uk of the new churchill's choice' policy in the uk even though he supports it. basically it means forgetting democracy human rights and all that stuff and working through the tribal system and letting them sort out their customs [regarding women, voting, dress, education etc] and bloodletting.

    why its not been widely reported in the uk also remains a mystery?

    however if you look at this

    it shows no one understands what they are doing anyway. unless milliband can explain it?

  • Comment number 3.

    A simple look at the statistics from the last few years available from your website would show that 8 soldiers have been killed in the past four Aprils British troops have been in Afghanistan. 3 of them were killed this April. This April is in fact the most costly in terms of lives. This would seem to support the argument that the harvest has become the Taliban priority as it is their main source of income for the year and do not have the manpower to mount attacks.

    Similarly exploiting this lull with ISAF counter offensives at a time that is also incredibly important for the people of Helmand would hardly help win 'hearts and minds.'

    Why so cynical?

  • Comment number 4.

    I can assure everyone that the Troops in Helmand have not been lying low during the election phase. It is the fact that the Royal Marine Commandos have taken over the critical areas and this is the reason there has not been any deaths in recents weeks, but if this journalist got his facts correct, he would find the amount of casualties are enough to assure that they are doing the same job as their predeccessors.

  • Comment number 5.

    The reason that things tend to become more peacefull in Helmand during the poppy harvest is due to the fact that many of the local fighters down arms to aid in the harvest, which provides wealth to not just the farmers themselves, but also the Taliban.

  • Comment number 6.

    When the ash came into the equation I suddenly released that no deaths of troops were not announced.
    After all the bodies could not come back.
    Have they not fought anyone? I hope no other

  • Comment number 7.

    i have been surprised by the low level of incidents and deaths recently but this puts a new perspective on things, could the british govt be so cynical in its use of the army and peoples lives

  • Comment number 8.

    It's the "ash cloud". No planes anywhere so no high level phone communications from small planes(? moot I know). Also three top Al Q leaders were killed in Iraq. Have some low level communication lines been broken?
    Good ploy if there was but they'll know that trick now so I can mention it but it won't get published...

  • Comment number 9.

    Mark, I think you are barking up the wrong tree here....We lost Fusilier Burgess on 7 Apr 10, just 24 days ago. Periods of upto 20 days between KIAs are not uncommon. The longest periods between KIAs, as reported on the BBC website, since 2006 are as follows:
    15 Mar – 28 Apr 09 (the H9-H10 RIP) = 44 days
    13 Sep – 15 Oct 08 (the H8-H9 RIP) = 32 days
    20 Feb – 30 Mar 08 (leading up to the H7-H8 RIP) = 38 days
    8 Dec 07 – 20 Jan 08 (during H7) = 43 days
    4 Oct – 9 Nov 07 (just after the H6-H7 RIP) = 35 days
    19 Oct – 5 Dec 06 (start of H5) = 47 days
    There was no respite during the H10-H11 RIP (Sep/Oct 09),
    52 Bde (H7) had the largest periods of no KIAs by a wide margin (one of 35 days, one of 43 days, one of 38 days).
    I think these figures quite convincingly show that there is very little change to the patterns seen at this time of the year. Indeed, God willing, we should see another 20 days before the next KIA.

  • Comment number 10.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • Comment number 11.

    Number 4 is correct on this " It is the fact that the Royal Marine Commandos have taken over the critical areas and this is the reason there has not been any deaths in recents weeks, but if this journalist got his facts correct, he would find the amount of casualties are enough to assure that they are doing the same job as their predeccessors."


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