British soldiers in Afghanistan have been harshly criticised by the country's president Hamid Karzai, local officials and the American commander of Nato troops, according to leaked diplomatic papers.
The secret US embassy cables, obtained by whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, report conversations in which Mr Karzai said that Britain was “not up to the task” of securing the southern province of Helmand and suggested the job would be better given to the US.
US general Dan McNeill, who led Nato forces in Afghanistan in 2007/08, is said to have been “dismayed” by a British effort which “made a mess of things” in Helmand.
And Helmand governor Gulab Mangal is said to have criticised British troops for failing to get out of their bases and engage with local people.
The latest Wikileaks revelations sparked indignation among some of those linked to the UK deployment in Helmand, which has swelled to 10,000 troops since it began in 2006.
Anthony Philipson, whose son James was one of the first British troops to die in the province, told the BBC: “We have done the best we could with some of the finest infantry in the world, we have taken terrible casualties.
“Yes, the place is still a hotbed of violence, but I think it always will be.”
According to the cables, President Karzai told US officials he was puzzled why security in Helmand had deteriorated after the arrival of British troops.
In the aftermath of the 2001 ousting of the Taliban, he had been able to visit the region with just 14 US special forces, but with thousands of British troops on the ground the area was no longer safe, he said.
At a meeting with Senator John McCain in December 2008, he said he was relieved that US marines were being sent in to reinforce British troops and “related an anecdote in which a woman from Helmand asked him to ‘take the British away and give us back the Americans'”.
And a cable sent by the embassy that year said that without US support, “we and Karzai agree the British are not up to the task of securing Helmand” ahead of the next year's presidential elections.
In 2007 Gen McNeill was said to be “particularly dismayed by the British effort”. He is reported to have said that “they had made a mess of things in Helmand, their tactics were wrong”.
A deal with the Taliban which allowed British troops to be withdrawn from Musa Qala in 2006 “opened the door to narco-traffickers in that area, and now it was impossible to tell the difference between the traffickers and the insurgents. The British could do a lot more, he said, and should, because they have the biggest stake.”