Tough Times for the British Military in Afghanistan

August 27, 2009

British forces have been engaged alongside the United States military and other NATO allies in Afghanistan since 2001. Initially we contributed to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the capital, Kabul, and at Mazar al-Sharif in the north. In 2006, however, British forces redeployed the majority of their effort to the border province of Helmand in the south.

August 27, 2009

British forces have been engaged alongside the United States military and other NATO allies in Afghanistan since 2001. Initially we contributed to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in the capital, Kabul, and at Mazar al-Sharif in the north. In 2006, however, British forces redeployed the majority of their effort to the border province of Helmand in the south.

Helmand had become one of the main centres of the Taliban insurgency and a symbol of resistance to the Karzai government in Kabul. After the fall of Kandahar in 2001, the Taliban were still in control of most of Helmand. Mullah Omar took refuge here after fleeing Kandahar, and the world’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, spent some time in the Helmand border area in 2003.

Helmand, in the south-west of Afghanistan and roughly 500 hazardous kilometres from the capital, shares a southern border with the unruly tribal region of north-west Pakistan. The province consists largely of furnace-like flatlands, bisected by the Helmand River, which is flanked either side by lush vegetation known as the ‘Green Zone’. The Green Zone is an area of densely irrigated land, supporting almost 90 per cent of the local population. The fertility of the Green Zone makes Helmand Afghanistan’s largest producer of opium.

Since deployment to Helmand the British, often fighting with U.S. units such as elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, and frequently backed up by U.S. air assets as well as our own, have been engaged in intensive combat. The British military contingent in Afghanistan is the second largest, currently at around 8,000. Some of the toughest fighting has come in the last couple of months. Following the arrival into the south of Helmand of a large force of U.S. Marines, the British and Americans, with elements of the Afghan National Army, coordinated with Pakistani operations across the border, undertook a major offensive to clear the Taliban from large swathes of Helmand in preparation for the national elections on 20th August. The offensive was also designed to provide increased security for the population of the province in the longer term.

These operations, known by the United States as ‘Strike of the Sword’ and by the British as ‘Panther’s Claw’ are reported to have been successful but have been costly for both armies. British casualties have been 22 killed and 57 wounded in action, many of them seriously. The British death toll in Afghanistan has now passed 200, a significant number especially in an Army of only 98,000 regular troops.

This milestone has led to considerable reflection across the UK, especially in the media, and to serious questions about government policy.

What should we in Britain make of the scale of casualties we have now sustained in Afghanistan? What lies behind these 200 deaths? A remarkable story of courage and determination in conditions of the greatest adversity. The overwhelming majority were killed as a result of enemy action: shot by rifle, machine gun or rocket fire; blown up by improvised explosive devices, land mines or booby-traps. The final moments of many of our young soldiers have been attended by violent battle scenes with close friends fighting desperately to keep their horrifically wounded comrade alive.

For every soldier killed in action, three or four are injured. As well as the 200 dead, at least 700 of our troops have been wounded in action in Afghanistan. Many have had arms and legs ripped off or shredded beyond repair; others have sustained spinal injuries, brain damage, severe burns, blinding or loss of vital organs. Of the additional 2,000 British casualties evacuated with serious disease or non-battle injury, large numbers have gone down as a result of the extraordinary conditions in Helmand – some of the most challenging in which British forces have ever fought.

Day in, day out they patrol towards the enemy with eighty or ninety pounds of equipment in searing heat up to 55 degrees Celsius. Marching hour after hour across sun-baked, dusty, rugged desert or struggling through jungle-like vegetation, wading across filthy, oozing irrigation canals and taking cover in open sewage ditches and flea-ridden compounds.

Their determined and deadly enemy are skilled at using the high-walled rat-run alleyways and the labyrinth of interconnecting irrigation ditches, tree lines and open fields to ambush, booby trap and force engagements at brutally short ranges where the usual advantages of modern weapons and sensors are neutralized.

Although we concentrate predominantly on our own casualties, we should not forget that our troops have consistently outfought the Taliban in Afghanistan, inflicting losses on them at rates sometimes as high as 100 to 1. But the nature of counter insurgency means that this alone cannot be seen as a measure of success. And like guerrilla fighters throughout the history of warfare, the Taliban have learnt the futility of taking on professional, regular troops face to face. An increasing number of our casualties are caused by mines, roadside bombs and booby traps.

To endure and prevail in this type of combat demands much more than well-honed battle skills and even the grittiest determination. The words of recently-departed Private Harry Patch, last British survivor of the Battle of Passchendaele in the First World War, apply to Helmand as to any intensive battle: ‘Anyone who tells you that… they weren’t scared, he’s a damned liar: you were scared all the time.’ Combat in Afghanistan is terrifying. And this makes our fighting men’s actions truly courageous: because without fear there can be no courage.

It should be a source of the greatest national pride, as well as humility, that so many of our young men and women are prepared to volunteer for this fight – knowing the conditions they will face, knowing the lethality of their enemy and knowing that they could easily be killed or maimed from the very moment they set foot on Afghan soil. The supreme sacrifice of the 200 represents extraordinary sacrifices at every level among our armed forces in Afghanistan. Many of the severely wounded will never again lead a normal life. Some suffer psychological scarring, the effects of which in numerous cases will not emerge for years to come. Even those who return apparently unscathed have made immense sacrifices, suffering stress and privations beyond the comprehension of most people in this country, and frequently reverberating into their personal lives and relationship back home.

It can only ever be right for us to demand the sacrifices of war in circumstances of the gravest necessity. Such applied when we deployed forces to Afghanistan in 2001 and remain just as vital today: the defence of our homeland and our people across the globe against further terrorist attack by Islamist extremists.

The Afghan campaign is a vital element of the global war on terrorism – a term that has become less fashionable but nevertheless remains apt – in which our military, our police, our intelligence services and our diplomats are engaged in various forms across the world today.

In this, as in many other respects, Afghanistan is inextricably linked to Pakistan. The 9/11 attack was made possible by al Qaeda’s extensive base in Afghanistan. The 2002 Bali nightclub bombing had its roots among the al Qaeda headquarters and training camps in Afghanistan and was connected also to extremists in Pakistan. The 2005 bombings in London were directed by al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan. In these three attacks alone, nearly 150 defenseless British people were killed and many more seriously injured.

It is to prevent further deadly strikes that we and our allies fight in Afghanistan, and why we, the Americans and other NATO nations invest so much effort into disrupting extremists in Pakistan and supporting the Pakistani government in their own struggle with insurgency. Without these endeavors, how many more of our people might have been killed in terrorist attacks?

A return to Taliban rule would open the door again to the training camps and the coordination hubs of al Qaeda and their fellow travelers. And a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan would provide a safe haven for insurgent attacks against Pakistan, already in serious trouble from Islamist extremism. The consequences might be nothing short of a nuclear armed state under extremist rule.

Can we achieve our objectives in Afghanistan? Ultimately there will have to be a political settlement but that can only be achieved from a position of strength.

To achieve such a position we have three key tasks. The first is to undermine the Taliban to the extent that we can hand over management of the insurgency to the government of Afghanistan. That requires continued, unremitting NATO military action, and an equivalent campaign across the border by the government of Pakistan, supported by us and our allies, particularly the United States. It also demands political action to persuade elements of the insurgency to switch sides or at least to cease their violent opposition to the Kabul government. To achieve this, we can expect continued fighting and, tragically, more British casualties.

The second key task is to help the Afghan government develop its ability to run the country and build security forces capable of taking on the insurgency. This will require continuing and substantial effort by NATO. It will likely necessitate financial and specialist support over many years to come.

Finally we must continue to build the support of the people of Afghanistan for the government and for NATO assistance. This needs greatly increased emphasis on economic development and reconstruction – demonstrating that there is an alternative to Taliban rule that can provide greater security, freedom from oppression and at least some increased prosperity.

It is critical that we convince the Afghan people that we will not abandon them. They do not want NATO forces in their country indefinitely. But they won’t be able to tolerate or support us even in the short to medium term if they believe that our withdrawal would be followed rapidly by the return of the Taliban.

To stand a chance of succeeding in this vital campaign, the government and people of the United Kingdom must not waver even when the going gets as tough as it is today. We must show the same courage and resolve as our brave and determined fighting men and women in Afghanistan.

Colonel Richard Kemp, CBE (ret.) was the commander of British Forces in Afghanistan in 2003. Portions of this article appeared in Kemp’s August 17 op-ed for the Daily Mail (UK), “Combat in Helmand is terrifying… but without fear there is no courage.” His book, Attack State Red, an account of military operations in Afghanistan, will be published by Penguin on 3rd September.
© 2009 Richard Kemp