As death toll rises in Afghanistan, so too will the scepticism
The number of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan has reached 184 at the time of writing, with 15 of them dying in the last 12 days.
The sharply increased death toll has brought the war into much clearer focus for many people, not least the families of those soldiers serving there.
Suddenly the Government is facing embarrassing questions on a number of fronts. Chief among them is whether the troops in Afghanistan are sufficiently well equipped. Most of the deaths have come as the result of roadside or culvert bombs, a terrorist tactic well known from the Army’s service during 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland.
During the height of the IRA’s campaign the Army simply accepted that there were areas of Northern Ireland which were too dangerous to patrol conventionally, either on foot or by armoured vehicle. Prime among those areas was south Armagh where the terrain and the strong republican presence turned the narrow country roads into potential killing fields.
The Army’s answer was to move everything from soldiers to equipment by helicopter.
It was a tactic which worked well, allowing the Army to move about the area in relative safety.
It is the lack of helicopters which is leading to the fiercest criticism of the Government’s support for troops in Afghanistan.
Some 75% of the soldiers killed in the country in the last two years have died in bomb blasts. The Taliban is not going to engage better trained and better equipped NATO troops in stand-up fights, but rather resorts to the classic tactics of the terrorist.
They are tactics which help to sap morale, both on the ground and at home, and it is imperative that the Government acts swiftly to repair the damage already done. There are not enough troop-carrying Chinook helicopters to ferry soldiers from one front to another and to provide the frontline troops with back up reinforcements. The smaller Lynx helicopters apparently struggle to operate in the high altitude and heat of Afghanistan.
In 2001 eight Chinook helicopters were bought for special forces operations in Afghanistan, but a software problem meant they were virtually inoperable in a theatre of war. It was a blunder which did little to instil confidence in the Government’s procurement policies.
In the absence of helicopters the soldiers are having to travel in convoys of vehicles, which although armoured, offer little protection against massive roadside bombs.
Again there are vehicles which offer more protection, but again they are not immediately available.
As the death toll mounts the other major problem for the Government is convincing a sceptical population that the Afghan war is worth fighting and, secondly, that it can be won.
British and American troops went into Afghanistan to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida. That is still the prime consideration.
Defeat in Afghanistan would leave an already shaky Pakistan and its nuclear arsenal vulnerable to al-Qaida and its allies, so defeat is not an option.
But Afghanistan is a country and a law onto itself. Ancient tribal allegiances and alliances will always take precedent over modern global politics.
Can the British and Americans establish some form of internal rule which will command respect throughout the provinces?
That is a very doubtful proposition.
Yet, unless a Kabul-based government can be convinced to work in the interests of global stability — which means preventing Afghanistan become a centre for terrorist training and a launch-pad for attacks — then the campaign and the deaths of so many young soldiers there will have been in vain