Belfast Telegraph

We owe it to the Fallen to see the job through

The 300th British fatality in Afghanistan will lead to calls for withdrawal. But that would be a betrayal of those who gave their lives, says Richard Doherty

The death of a marine of 40 Commando Royal Marines brings the toll of British servicemen and women in Afghanistan to the tragic milestone figure of 300.

In this case the victim died in Birmingham's Queen Elizabeth Hospital of wounds sustained in Helmand, where he was serving with Task Force Helmand, the British contribution to the NATO-led force.

Many will join with the young soldier's family in mourning his loss, but many more will see this death as providing a focus for further debate on Britain's role in Afghanistan.

Inevitable questions will focus on equipment and when this operation will end. And, of course, there are many who argue that British forces ought not to be there at all.

Let's look at the equipment question. British troops have been operating in Helmand now for six years.

Initially, there were shortages of equipment and problems with certain items. No one had foreseen this operation - Herrick to the UK forces - and thus the equipment needed was often lacking.

In the early years of Operation Herrick there were shortages of vital equipment, but that has been consigned to history. The greatest shortage now facing Task Force Helmand is a lack of helicopters.

Moving anywhere by road is dangerous as the Taliban have become very skilled at building improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and targeting patrols.

They are also aware of the tactics for evacuating casualties and thus every deployment of a medical team to evacuate an injured soldier is fraught with danger.

Helicopter landing-sites have to be checked for further IEDs while Taliban fighters with rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) will try to hit the rescue helicopter while landing or taking off.

More than one Chinook has returned to Camp Bastion - the main British base in Helmand - with damage from bullet strikes. Two have been lost, fortunately without loss of life.

IED countermeasures are improving constantly. Better armoured vehicles are now available with blast deflection as well as protection built in. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, are used to check the ground for disturbed earth or individuals behaving suspiciously.

The RAF now operates Sentinel aircraft with airborne stand-off radar (Astor) that can look though cloud and darkness for Taliban IED-planting teams.

Patrols use hand-held mine detectors to sweep the ground. And there are, of course, the incredibly brave Ammunition Technical Officers (ATOs) who risk their lives day and daily to neutralise IEDs.

Lighter and more effective body-armour has now been issued with the latest combat helmet. Both have saved many lives.

Several soldiers have survived heavy machine-gun strikes thanks to their body armour while at least one had an RPG round bounce off the chest plate of his Osprey body armour.

But to do their job effectively, soldiers must be on the ground meeting the people of Helmand. That the job is being done effectively is shown by the increased area of Helmand under local governance. This means that people can live normal lives, farmers can tend their crops and sell those crops at local bazaars and children can attend school.

However, there is still a long way to go. ISAF troops must earn the respect of the Afghan people - not easily done - while the professionalism of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police are built up through the NATO mentoring programme. In the case of the ANA much progress has been made. British personnel who have worked with them have commented on that progress.

Although they still have much to learn, a sound training programme is in place and NATO troops work closely with them on operations.

Among improvements still needed are better selection of officers and NCOs to ensure the future of a truly professional army.

Sadly, the ANP is a force riven by corruption. Policemen are paid poorly and will often compensate for that by 'taxing' locals.

Moreover, policemen serve in their home villages and towns - another opportunity for corruption. And in a land where grudges are held for centuries, that is not a good policing option.

Western nations are also involved in training and mentoring the ANP. However, much of this is being done by soldiers.

US Marines have mentored policemen, as have British Special Forces. The ideal, but not a realistic option at present, is deploying police officers to undertake this task.

The average Afghan civilian, especially in somewhere such as Helmand, is almost a spectator. He distrusts the government in Kabul, the provincial government and the local government.

Millennia of tradition have taught him to distrust foreigners and so he looks with suspicion on ISAF forces, as well as the ANA and ANP. And yet he can be wonderfully hospitable if he believes someone's intentions are good.

Nor does he trust the Taliban. He knows what they did when they took control before, in the wake of the Soviet withdrawal.

Taliban atrocities have been aimed at civilians as well as ISAF soldiers. A village headman executed for holding a meeting with soldiers. The recent execution of a seven-year-old boy as a spy. The exploitation of farmers and merchants.

None endears the Taliban to the majority of Afghanistan's people. What NATO/ISAF is trying to achieve is a situation whereby Afghan soldiers and Afghan police can take over the role now being carried out by troops.

An accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to the Taliban taking over control again and the destabilisation of Pakistan, where many of the Taliban now live, train and hide.

It will be some years still before the ANA and ANP can operate with full confidence and professionalism. Those years will be marked by yet more ISAF, including British, deaths.

But a hasty withdrawal, leaving the country to the mercy of the Taliban, would be a betrayal of the 300 British personnel who have already died.

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