Saturday, February 21, 2009

AfPak: Brit views

Tough year ahead:
While British commanders insist the Taliban is nothing like the force it was when British troops first deployed to the lawless Helmand province in southern Afghanistan in the spring of 2006, the constant supply of recruits and equipment from neighbouring Pakistan means they still remain a formidable threat. And as British forces prepare for what many senior officers expect to be a summer of intense fighting, commanders are warning that this could be the year in which British troops suffer their highest casualties so far.

"We've inflicted a series of heavy defeats against the Taliban, taken out a lot of their senior commanders, and generally got them on the back foot," said a senior British officer at Nato headquarters in Helmand. "But now we've got to take advantage of our strong position and finish them off, and that could mean a significant spike in casualties. For all the success we have had recently, the Taliban remain a determined and deadly foe, and they will not give up without a fight."

And as David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, discovered when we visited the headquarters of British forces at the forward military base at Lashkagar, Taliban fighters are receiving assistance from British supporters who are sending them remote control devices to help build the roadside bombs that are used to attack British troops in southern Afghanistan...

"The British military has done an outstanding job and is a credit to the nation," said Miliband, during a brief respite from his 48-hour schedule, during which he toured the front lines of British and American forces in the south and east respectively, while also having discussions with Afghan officials, including the beleaguered president in Kabul. "But this is a vital year for Afghanistan and clearly we can't have more of the same. We need to make much faster progress on all fronts – political, military and economic. Put simply, we have to do much better all round, or else public support for what we are trying to achieve is simply going to evaporate in the West [emphasis added]."

The enormity of the task facing both British and the other coalition forces based in Afghanistan after four years of combat – and significant casualties – was graphically brought home on a variety of fronts.

In strictly military terms, it must be said that the British campaign is going reasonably well and, after a difficult start when there was much confusion over policy objectives, British commanders have succeeded in their fundamental objectives of severely disrupting the Taliban as a fighting force and securing most of the populated areas [what new US forces are supposed to do at Kandahar] they are mandated to control.

But that is only half the story. The Taliban may have suffered significant defeats in Afghanistan, but there is no shortage of eager young Islamist recruits streaming across the border from the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan to join the jihad against coalition forces...

The main reason that coalition forces find themselves in this invidious position is because of the failure of President Karzai's government to bring proper governance to areas that have been liberated from Taliban control. Worse than that, some coalition commanders believe the president's government is actively seeking to undermine the coalition's efforts by spreading perverse, black propaganda to the effect that the coalition is actually aiding and abetting the Taliban.

The ineffectiveness of the Karzai government is fast becoming a cause célèbre for the coalition, which is particularly concerned about the looming constitutional crisis over Karzai's delay in setting a date for presidential elections, which are due in May, when his five-year term expires.

By all accounts, Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's new special envoy to the region, pulled no punches during his first encounter with Karzai at the presidential palace in Kabul this week, telling him he must hold elections by August at the latest, and that Washington would take a very dim view of any further attempts by his government to undermine the coalition...
Update: Brit military planning troop increase:
Defence chiefs believe the 8,300 troops currently serving in the south of the country need to be bolstered by an extra battle group of between 1,500 and 1,800 men within a year.

The deployment will push the Britain's Armed Forces to the very limit of its fighting capability and will raise fears that the entire operation has now fallen victim to "mission creep".

It is understood that the Army's top generals have given their support for the plan and are now awaiting approval from the Treasury and other areas of government.

The so-called "mini-surge" has been ordered in a direct response to a decision by President Barack Obama to send an extra 17,000 combat troops to counter the growing threat posed by the Taliban...

The new British battle group will consist of an infantry battalion, composed of around 700 troops, bolstered by at least one rifle company of 120 troops. The force will be supported by signallers, medics, engineers and elements of the Royal Artillery.

The Army has notched up a series of major successes against the Taliban, including the retaking of Musa Qala in northern Helmand, a former insurgent stronghold, as well as the operation to create a functioning hydro-electric power station at Kajaki [with some Canadian help - MC].

But the much vaunted plans to bring reconstruction to the region have stalled, following the deterioration of security in the province.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has now increased troops numbers in Helmand every six months since 2006, when just 3,300 troops were sent to southern Afghanistan to secure the area and to allow reconstruction to begin..


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