Bloody reality of Afghan war hits home

As British forces suffer a sharp rise in casualties, the new Defence Secretary is forced to acknowledge 'gloom and worry'

Seven deaths in seven days, and the grim warning that many more lives will be lost before it is over. That is the bloody reality on the ground for British troops in what has been described as the defining moment in the ferocious war in Afghanistan.

The Defence Secretary Bob Ains-worth acknowledged yesterday that "there is, of course, gloom and worry back here with the numbers of people we have lost". He went on to say: "Let us be under no illusion. The situation in Afghanistan is serious, and not yet decided. The way forward is hard and dangerous. More lives will be lost and our resolve will be tested... If we are to succeed we will need both the courage and the patience to see it through."

The message came along with the news of the latest fatality in the conflict, a serviceman from the Light Dragoons killed in an explosion in Gereshk in Helmand, 24 hours after Captain Ben Babington-Browne, of 22 Engineer Regiment, Royal Engineers, was killed in a helicopter crash.

It was also the day Major Sean Birchall, of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, was laid to rest after a service at the Guards Chapel in London's Wellington Barracks. His widow, Joanna, the mother of his 18-month-old son Charlie, said: "Sean was a wonderful husband, a doting father and a much loved son and brother who cared deeply for his family and friends. He was thrilled to have the opportunity to lead his men in Afghanistan and he was utterly devoted to the Guardsmen he was with."

At the time of Major Birchall's death his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thornloe spoke of the loss of "an outstandingly talented individual who showed inspirational leadership". Last week Lt Col Thornloe was killed himself, becoming the most senior British Army officer to be killed since the Falklands War, along with Trooper Joshua Hammond, from the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment.

Recriminations about the conduct of the mission with the remorselessly rising casualty list came from a retired senior diplomat, Sir Brian Crowe, the deputy chairman of Chatham House, where the Defence Secretary was speaking, saying the lack of helicopters in the combat zone was "a real scandal".

There were also signs of tensions within the command structure when the Defence Secretary, asked whether he was going to send reinforcements to Afghanistan responded: "We've got 9,000 there at the moment. Those who want to send more are the same ones who warned that current operations could break the Army."

The Independent has revealed that senior military commanders, backed by Mr Ainsworth's predecessor, John Hutton, had asked for 2,500 extra troops to be sent to Helmand. This was turned down by Gordon Brown who would only agree to the temporary deployment of 700 to help provide security for the Afghan elections in August.

Mr Ainsworth denied claims that Afghanistan was turning into "Britain's Vietnam" but acknowledged that there was no quick exit from the conflict. "In the face of the casualties we are seeing, it is understandable when people ask, 'is this too difficult?' But this is not the message I get in Afghanistan. People don't want the Taliban back and we must stay and finish the job. If you come you must stay."

The shadow Defence Secretary Liam Fox claimed that despite Mr Ainsworth's assurances, troops in Afghanistan still lack essential equipment. "There are real questions about whether the Government has fulfilled the pledge to give the armed forces everything they need to do the job," he said. "The bottom line from our troops is they don't have enough armoured vehicles and they don't have enough helicopters."

The US Defence Secretary Robert Gates had stated that American public opinion will "wear thin" in Afghanistan unless significant progress is made in the course of the year. Both sides seem to see the coming months as decisive in shaping the course of the conflict. More than 22,000 US troops have poured into the south of the country with around 10,000 heading for Helmand, the centre of UK operations.

They are paying a heavy price; seven American soldiers, along with two Canadians, were killed in 24 hours earlier this week. US and British forces are now involved in an operation to take control of the Helmand river valley, an area which has become the base for Taliban fighters fanning out to carry out attacks across the province.