Officials were last night preparing to repatriate the bodies of six British soldiers who died on Tuesday, when their Warrior armoured fighting vehicle was caught in an explosion in Helmand in Afghanistan. Thus will Sergeant Nigel Coupe, Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anthony Frampton, Private Christopher Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford be brought back from a conflict which a defence secretary once said he wished could be concluded "without firing one shot".
It was never meant to be like this. Britain's involvement was billed as a straightforward mission to exact revenge on Osama bin Laden, topple the Taliban government and bring democracy. Now, more than 10 years after 9/11, with hundreds dead, thousands injured and billions spent, British forces remain in a protracted battle few believe they can win.
The British death toll has reached 404, a total that underlines questions about the reason for the presence of British troops in Afghanistan, the timetable for their withdrawal, and the ability of Afghan forces to keep the country secure once coalition troops leave in 2014. David Cameron will arrive in Washington on Wednesday to hold talks with President Obama in an attempt to check that both forces are in "lock step" over their role in Afghanistan. He restated to ministers that the mission was "vital" to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for al-Qa'ida.
Two years ago, this newspaper said that Britain was mired in an unwinnable conflict, and should withdraw. Yet still our soldiers die. Here, The Independent on Sunday speaks to the families of some of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
First to die, 9 April 2002
Lance Corporal Darren George, Royal Anglian Regiment
It was a British soldier, rather than a Taliban fighter, who was responsible for the first casualty. Lance Corporal George, a father of one, was on security patrol in Kabul a few months after the fall of the Taliban. He died after a ricocheting bullet hit him in the head. It had been accidentally fired by a colleague. It was recorded as a verdict of accidental death. His widow Sharon Hopkins said: "I think it is important that every one of these soldiers is remembered. It's coming up to Darren's 10th anniversary... they normally list Darren as a private, whereas he was a lance corporal [and he] worked hard for that rank."
First to die in a suicide bomb attack, 28 January 2004
Private Jonathan Kitulagoda, Rifle Volunteers
It was the first death that would raise questions about the suitability of armoured vehicles. The 23-year-old from Bedfordshire was in an open-topped army Land Rover when he overtook a suicide bomber who detonated more than 200lb of explosives from inside a taxi.
The death forced a reassessment of patrol vehicles. It later emerged that several requests for armoured vehicles were refused by the MoD as they were either in Iraq or stored in the UK as part of a reserve consignment. His father, Ranjith, said: "My son was killed on 28 January, and his funeral was on 10 February. It is a difficult time of year and makes it hard for me to talk about it."
First to die in combat, 29 October 2005
Lance Corporal Steven Sherwood, 1st Battalion, The Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry
The 23-year-old had been in the Mazar-e-Sharif region of Afghanistan for only a month when his vehicle convoy was ambushed by Taliban insurgents, starting a gun battle. He had been ordered not to wear his helmet or body armour to avoid presenting a "threatening" face to locals.
His father Alan said: "Obviously in a conflict there's going to be loss of lives but I never expected it to be this high at all. Just before Steven went to Afghanistan we had a good chat over a bottle of whisky. We were discussing things, and he knew what he was going over there for. He knew it wasn't going to be a joyride. He knew there might be a chance that he wouldn't come back but, although you say these things, you don't really expect that to happen. They say time is a great healer but you never heal. You just get on with things.
"Until probably about two years ago I'd have said no, stay out there and get it done, but now I think they should come home. I think we've done all we can out there, to be honest. It's time for the Afghans to sort themselves out."
First to die in Helmand, 11 June 2006
Captain James Philippson, 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery
In a year in which British forces were engaged in the fiercest fighting since the Second World War, the 29-year-old became the first soldier to die in Helmand province. He was killed after he became embroiled in a firefight with Taliban insurgents.
His father Tony said: "My son didn't believe a word that Tony Blair said, not a word of it. He joined the Army to do some proper soldiering and they welcomed the involvement in Afghanistan, so they knew bloody well what was going to happen. We used to call James 'Action Man'. He used to come home and not be able to sit down for a minute. He was full of life and he enjoyed the Army. He knew when he was a young lad that's what he was going to do. He had military pyjamas when he was about 10.
"His mother is not the same woman. She's lost all the brightness she had in her life. She was a vivacious, good-looking woman and now she doesn't sleep very well. His younger brother can't bear to go to any of the ceremonies because it upsets him.
"The milestone of 400 deaths tells us that the disaster is now twice the size of Iraq and it's not finished yet. We didn't actually go there to get women votes or build schools – all worthwhile, but that's how desperate they are when they forget the real reason why we went there. It's too inconvenient to remind them.
"Bush decided he was going after Bin Laden and was going into Afghanistan come what may – whether Blair joined in or nor. The idiot Blair did.
"Afghanistan is a tribalistic country. It has been a total disaster not just in terms of the lives lost and all those injured. It's the fortune it has cost, and that money could have done huge amount to save lives elsewhere. A total and utter waste of billions. In the end, all we've done is interfered in a civil war."
First Muslim soldier to die, 1 July 2006
Lance Corporal Jabron Hashmi, Intelligence Corps (attached to the Royal Signals)
The Pakistani-born soldier died in a Taliban attack on his base in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Along with his brother, he was one of only 320 Muslims among the 200,000 servicemen and women in the British armed forces.
His brother, Zeeshan, said: "The sense of loss is always there, especially if you were to ask my mother. For me, every single day I think of him in one way or another. He was extremely sincere, somebody who was committed to bringing about a very positive change, somebody who was very daring, somebody who would never back down from a challenge.
"I knew, based on the intelligence that we were receiving before he deployed, that there was a great deal of worry and concern, but he took on those challenges. Essentially he was a doer, participating in the physical sense and changing it, as opposed to being an outside observer.
"Had we provided the average Afghan with what we had promised them – which was stability, security and economic opportunity – then it would have been a real pleasure and honour to be part of it. As it is, however, I feel we've paid a heavier cost and not gained as much in return.
"The emphasis was very much on introducing elections and supporting a corrupt regime. But we went there not knowing the ground or the history. Now Karzai has been in power since late 2001. He is a very corrupt leader, yet we are supporting him and in doing so we have lost our legitimacy in front of the Afghan people.
"We were once in a position to assist the people of Afghanistan, but not only did we fail them by supporting a corrupt regime for too long and pursuing policies that were of great detriment to our declared objectives of introducing democracy, the rule of law and accountability, but we also failed ourselves. A nation will always find, among its sons and daughters, men and women who will defend it and make sacrifices to protect others. However, these sacrifices have often gone to waste due to the vanity of the few who have abused their position of political power."
First to be killed by friendly fire, 5 December 2006
Marine Jonathan Wigley, Zulu Company 45 Commando Royal Marines
In one of the most controversial instances of friendly fire, the Marine died as a result of wounds after he was hit by gunfire from a US jet during an operation on the outskirts of the village of Garmsir, southern Helmand. He was wounded and airlifted to the UK military hospital at Camp Bastion, but died of his injuries.
His mother, Sharon, said: "For a long while it was surreal, difficult, and each additional death just brings it home even more.
"Jonathan was funny, naturally very clever and could have been anything but chose to be a Royal Marine. Jonathan didn't suffer fools gladly and he was adventurous and brave and very friendly. He always knew exactly what he wanted and never gave up. In life he knew where he wanted to be and he would put in whatever work it took to get there. The hardest thing is the fact that he's never coming home.
"Whether it was Taliban or friendly fire doesn't matter. My son was killed. I try to cope but it is hard. I've changed my life completely.
"Jonathan lived life to the full. At his funeral many people commented on the things he had done in his short life – how he had crammed a whole lifetime into 21 years. When I started to reflect on this I realised that I hadn't done a fraction of the things he had done and I suppose it was this that made me re-evaluate my life and start to be a bit more adventurous and aim for the things I really wanted. I went on to start an MA in creative writing. And we've set up a charity in his memory. Our aim is to raise money towards the cost of hi-spec wheelchairs and help for wounded troops.
"What a lot of people don't realise is that for everyone who is killed there are a huge number injured, often with life-changing injuries, and the huge numbers of lads coming home with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although my son died, I realise that there are mothers out there who are wondering whether their son will ever 'live' again, whether they will ever be the person they were before they went to Afghanistan. Although their grief is different, they will be grieving for the boy they lost and probably struggling to find him again."
First to die from an IED, 19 October 2006
Marine Gary Wright, 45 Commando Royal Marines
The 22-year-old died from his injuries after an improvised explosive device detonated next to the vehicle in which he was patrolling in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province.
His father Ian said: "Gary was such a big part of our lives. He was determined to be on the front line and there's no point standing in someone's way. Our main concern with Afghanistan is that if they pull out, will it just go back to the way it was before? Gary had said, if anything happened, to bear in mind that he could achieve anything by being there. We did waver when the rogue Afghan soldiers killed British military personnel. But having come this far – it is for Gary and the other fallen soldiers that we must complete this mission.
"People say that time heals wounds, but it doesn't. You just learn to live with what life deals you. There's a huge void and we miss Gary terribly."
The youngest to die, 10 July 2009
Rifleman Will Aldridge, 2 Rifles
He was only seven weeks past his 18th birthday when he was killed by an IED blast in Sangin while helping to extract casualties from a previous explosion in which he had been injured.
His mother Lucy said: "I have got very mixed emotions about the whole withdrawal. There's part of me that thinks we should see this out to the end. But then there's the other side of me that I don't want to witness any more deaths. I don't want any more families going through what I and more than 400 families have already gone through.
"The only thing that has changed is that I have an acceptance that William isn't here and he isn't going to be coming home. [The 400 milestone] is horrendous. I've obviously witnessed the 200th and the 300th since losing William, and it doesn't get any easier hearing about somebody else's loss. For the families that have already lost it brings back all of those emotions, because you know there's going to be another family in exactly the same position as you and having to come to terms with this devastating blow."
First media escort photographer to die, 30 May 2007
Corporal Mike Gilyeat, Royal Military Police
Born in Hanover, Germany, Corporal Mike Gilyeat followed his father into the Army in August 2002. He had previously served in Iraq and was working as a photographer in the British Army's media operations team when the US Chinook helicopter he was travelling in over Helmand province was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. Five American crew members and a Canadian colleague also died in the crash.
His father Mike said: "Our presence in Afghanistan has seen a great deal of sacrifice and investment, as well as progress.
"What happened to my son is a great struggle to deal with. But I believe it was right for our troops to be in Afghanistan in the first place and I know Michael believed in what he was doing there.
"We can pull out only once we have achieved all that we set out to do. Indeed, many of the families who have lost family members in Afghanistan would no doubt be aggrieved if that happened any sooner."
First woman to die, 17 June 2008
Corporal Sarah Bryant, Intelligence Corps
The 26-year-old was one of four soldiers killed when a roadside bomb tore through their vehicle near Lashkar Gah. The inquest suggested the team had been given inadequate training to handle bombs.
Her father Des Feely said: "As far as her being the first female to be killed, we always knew that this story would never go away. As a consequence, it keeps the grief so raw and open, making it impossible to make any progress with what's left of our lives.
"It is an open wound, and we went through quite a phase where every time you'd turn the TV on her face was all over it. It's a dreadful thing to try to get over. Well, you never get over it. It no longer feels like there is one goal that we're working towards. Instead, the way this explosion of terrorism is panning out around the world, I feel that we're puffing into the wind. On that basis you feel dreadfully robbed of the life of the child as well as your own."