Tragic milestone in crucial year for UK troops

By Caroline Wyatt
Defence correspondent, BBC News

Image caption,
The new government is taking a more pragmatic approach to Afghanistan

The UK has had troops in Afghanistan since 2001.

Today, 10,000 British soldiers are based there, many fighting a vicious counter-insurgency campaign in the heat and dust of Helmand on ill-defined front lines.

As the tragic milestone of the 300th British military death in Afghanistan is reached, many in Britain will be wondering what has been achieved during a conflict that has now lasted longer than World War II.

Some already question whether this really is a mission essential to the UK's national security.

More deaths and life-changing injuries for British troops in another summer of fighting in Helmand will only increase those doubts.

Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted the mission is vital to keeping the UK safe, but he reiterated his vow that British troops would not stay in Helmand a moment longer than necessary, a promise echoed by his Defence Secretary Liam Fox.

The reality is that this genuinely is the "crucial year", as Mr Cameron said on his recent visit to front-line troops.

Political patience

The US general in charge of the Nato-led campaign, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has been in post since last June.

He is responsible for ensuring the surge of US troops - at a record level of around 100,000 this summer - and his new, population-focused counter-insurgency strategy, aimed at winning over the Afghan people and so defeating the Taliban, makes a noticeable difference on the ground.

He, like other senior American and British officers, may well be worrying that the West's strategic patience will not last for as long as the military's will to continue the campaign to its conclusion.

Senior British officers are keen to see the task in Afghanistan through to its resolution, not least after Britain's exit from Basra was perceived by many as leaving a job half done and inflicting damage on the Army's reputation.

But they are also aware that if more progress is not made speedily, American political patience will wear thin, with the mid-term elections looming this November.

An even higher US body count, which recently surpassed 1,000, is also having its own impact on public opinion.

'Stable enough'

US President Barack Obama made clear last year when approving the surge that he wants a US drawdown of troops to begin next summer, although US General David Petraeus and others insist that has to be based on conditions on the ground.

Image caption,
The PM talked about an end game while on his first visit to Afghanistan

As one of America's main allies, it would be hard for the UK to begin to head for the exit in Afghanistan before the US does.

And the British government insists UK troops do need to stay for as long as it takes for the Afghan government and its security forces to be able to secure the country themselves.

Ministers say it is crucial to Britain's own security to ensure "a stable enough" Afghanistan, in the current government phrasing, to prevent Afghanistan again becoming a haven for those who want to carry out attacks like 9/11.

However, it is clear the new coalition government in the UK is taking a harder-headed, more pragmatic approach to the mission in Afghanistan - focusing seriously on what extra military equipment or civilian expertise may be needed, and on how to speed up training for Afghan security forces.

Leaving early

Pressure is now being put on other Nato allies - who may have been reluctant to send in combat troops - to contribute more to the training mission.

Likewise, the pressure is on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up official corruption, whether in the police or among government officials, and try to build a state which does not drive more Afghans into the arms of the insurgents, while endeavouring to win over some Taliban supporters to the government side.

Ultimately, there can only be an Afghan and regional solution to what many in the West increasingly perceive as a political and military stalemate.

This is a conflict which has so far cost the UK more than £11.1bn, according to figures released on Monday.

This is in addition to the 300 British lives lost, with hundreds more British service personnel injured.

If no real and measurable progress is made in the course of this year, and the death toll rises significantly over a fresh summer of fighting, calls in the UK for an earlier withdrawal of troops will increase - even if that means leaving before the mission is accomplished.