The bodies of six soldiers killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan, the highest number of British fatalities from one attack, were brought home today; a sombre reminder of the violence and danger in the longest foreign conflict this country has been involved in since the Second World War.
The corteges carrying the remains of Sergeant Nigel Coupe, of the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, Corporal Jake Hartley, Private Anthony Frampton, Private Christopher Kershaw, Private Daniel Wade and Private Daniel Wilford, all of the 3rd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, were flown to RAF Brize Norton for a private service and then taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan comrades of the fallen soldiers continued on a mission reaching its final stages with governments in the UK and the US facing growing public pressure to bring the troops back early.
However an American military report, seen by The Independent, warns of the risks which will be posed by too hasty withdrawal of troops and also points out the security pitfalls of the projected lowering of the Afghan forces’ strength for cost reasons.
The discussion paper is in preparation for an international summit in Chicago in May, which will shape the West’s relationship with Afghanistan after the end of the combat mission in 2014. The document, drawn up by a Pentagon team, looks at, among other issues, plans to cut the size of the Afghan forces by almost 40 per cent at the very time they are supposed to be taking over security responsibility from Nato. It also examines the options for drawdown being considered by the White House , the most drastic of which would see a major reduction by next February. The study also points out that the failure to establish establish governance in areas contested with the Taliban, with a return of corruption, would aid the insurgency.
There is widespread acceptance in London and Washington that Britain will follow the American lead in the timing and scale, proportionately, of the pull out. The Ministry of Defence, according to Whitehall sources, were kept unaware of what David Cameron would say about Afghanistan during recent visit to the States. “It was pretty clear that he did not want to commit himself until he had spoken to Obama” said one official.
While the two leaders deliberate on the departure path, Western officials are getting increasingly bemused and bewildered by the latest “wild pronouncements” coming from a third, Hamid Karzai, in Kabul. He described the burning of Korans by US officials, a mistake, as satanic acts that will never be forgiven by apologies”. And, after the murders of 16 civilians by an American soldier reportedly after a breakdown, the Afghan president described the Taliban and Nato as “ Two demons. Let’s pray for God to rescue us from these two demons”.
Mr Karzai has also insisted that Nato hand over control of security to Afghan forces by next year. Under the current American plans these forces, however, would shrink drastically from 352,000 to 220,000 in the next 12 months. The primary reason is one of costs: cutting manpower would lower the annual defence budget, which the international community will have to provide, from $ 6.2 billion to $ 4.1 billion.
The US report points out that such a reduction is predicated on the insurgency trailing off. It highlights the concerns of the Afghan defence minister, General Abdul Rahim Wardak, who stressed “Nobody at this moment, based on any type of analysis, can predict what will be the security situation in 2014. Going lower on troop numbers has to be based on realities on the ground. Otherwise it will be a disaster, a catastrophe, putting at risk all that we have accomplished together with so much sacrifice in blood and treasure.”
An US official familiar with the report said “Of course there will be significant savings by cutting numbers. But look at others costs. Why should Afghan soldiers and police risk their lives, essential if transition is to take place, if they know they will lose their jobs a little down the line? Also, do we really want 130,000 disaffected men trained to use arms made unemployed out on the streets, in an economy highly unlikely to find them other jobs? We need to be very careful what message we send from Chicago.”
The US will start withdrawing bulk of its remaining 90,000 troops with 22,000 departing this Autumn. No decision, says the administration, has been made on when the rest will leave. Vice-President Joe Biden, long an advocate of reduced military footprint on the ground, is said to want a rapid rate of return leaving specialist forces to carry out counter-terrorist operations.
Vice-President Biden took the same stance, and lost, while arguing against the request of General David Petraeus, then head of Nato forces in Afghanistan, for thousands of troops for a ‘surge’.
But the current political and economic climate is favouring Mr Biden. Amrican and British commanders would like to keep as many troops on the ground as possible until the 2014 handover. General John Allen, the current head of international troops, insisted “ The campaign is sound, it is solid. It does not contemplate any form of accelerated drawdown”. But Chicago may show that remains wishful thinking.