It was the sixth death among British troops in seven days after a relative lull in casualties – lethal signs that the Taliban are launching their own surge as the US prepares for its long-awaited offensive in Afghanistan.
The latest killing, of Royal Marine Jason Mackie on Thursday, came when a convoy of armoured vehicles was hit by a roadside bomb near Musa Qala, the Helmand capital. It was a further reminder that as well as sending sizeable numbers of fighters from madrassas in Pakistan, the insurgents are acquiring increasingly sophisticated explosive devices. Five other personnel serving in southern Afghanistan have died since 7 May, four of them in one day, and another at Selly Oak Hospital, near Birmingham, after being flown back to the UK for treatment for gunshot wounds to the shoulder.
The rise in fatalities comes as General Sir Richard Dannatt, the head of the Army, said Britain needed to rebuild its reputation as the key military ally of the US in Afghanistan after criticism over its performance in Iraq.
Sir Richard said "unfairly or not", the Americans had questioned Britain's military performance during the course of the Iraq operation. He said, in a speech to the Chatham House foreign affairs think-tank: "This relationship can only be sustained if it is founded on a certain military capability threshold."
Two weeks ago, the Government confirmed there would be no permanent increase in the British force in Afghanistan after the temporary 700-troop "surge" for the presidential elections.
Senior commanders were believed to have argued for up to 2,000 extra troops but the Treasury, determined to cut the cost of military operations, was said to have blocked their request. The willingness of the Taliban to embark on a campaign at the start of the traditional fighting season while also fighting across the border in the Swat Valley is seen as a sign of their determination in what will probably be a critical summer, given the elections in August. About 22,000 new US forces are being sent to Afghanistan, many of them heading for Helmand. Britain is deploying 1,000 troops, including the temporary surge of 700 to protect the polls.
Afghan and American security estimates put the number of jihadist fighters who have arrived in southern Afghanistan from Pakistan at up to 3,000, accompanied by significant supplies of improvised explosive devices, mines, mortar and rocket rounds.
Meanwhile, reports have found that British troops are using obsolete and out-of-date kit because of delays to equipment projects. The Commons Public Accounts Committee found that delayed projects included the Terrier armoured vehicle and the Soothsayer electronic warfare system.