UK opposes US plan for longer tours of duty

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The Independent Online

Britain and the US are at loggerheads over key aspects of their strategy against the Taliban, in fresh evidence of discord over the future of Nato's troubled mission in Afghanistan.

Washington wants a permanent command in the south of the country, where the fiercest fighting is taking place, instead of the current policy of rotating the post between contributing countries. The US has also asked for the length of time troops from other countries serve in Afghanistan to be significantly raised to match the lengthy American period of deployment.

The British Government is opposed to both the demands. It says that having a permanent southern command in Afghanistan – which, under the American plans, would be run by the US or Britain – would be a snub to Canada and the Netherlands, who are also taking part in the conflict. Canada, in particular, has suffered a large number of casualties. The UK is also refusing to extend the period of its current deployment of six months, saying it would put intolerable pressure on the already overstretched forces and would spark a rapid and potentially crippling exodus from the military.

The American proposals were recently presented to Nato and are currently under discussion, with Washington pressing hard for their acceptance. Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, is said to have declared that the alliance's response would be seen as an indication of its "seriousness" about the Afghan mission.

Mr Gates has pointed out that America, despite its heavy commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, has just raised the minimum length of deployment from 12 to 15 months. The US is also sending another 3,200 marines while Nato's European members have been accused of dragging their feet on reinforcements.

After the recent Nato meeting in Vilnius Mr Gates criticised a number of countries for turning a blind eye to the fact that they have to send soldiers to "fight and die" if victory is to be achieved in Afghanistan. Failure to do so, he added, "puts a cloud over the future of the alliance if this is to endure and perhaps even get worse".

The American position is said to have the support of the government of President Hamid Karzai in holding that a permanent command, based in Kandahar, as well as extending the length of the missions would provide stability and continuity. An Afghan official said: "We have members of the Pakistani security who have been working with the Taliban for the last 25 years. On the other side we have our Nato allies whose faces change more than once in just one year. So much in Afghanistan is based on personal contact and trust, yet just when someone from Nato has built that up at local level, it is time for him to move on."

A senior British defence official said yesterday: "We shall have to change the entire structure of our armed forces if we are to extend the period of deployment ... It simply isn't a realistic option. We also think it will be a mistake not to keep the command in the south in its current form."

There are deep reservations among the Canadians and the Dutch over the prospect of the Americans taking over in the south. Both the countries believe greater emphasis should be put on reconstruction and dialogue and less on fighting while the Americans hold that civic progress can only take place after military victory.

There was widespread opposition at Camp Bastion to the US proposals. Sqn Ldr Mike Harris, of the Critical Care Air Support Team, said: "Everyone here works to their utmost capability but we also have families and this is not something many of us will be willing to accept."

Major Chris Bell, whose company in the 1st Battalion Scots Guards fought alongside US troops in the recent battle to recapture the town of Musa Qala, said: "A lot of the Americans looked tired after serving for such long stretches. Our guys have been out on missions almost continuously for months with just a few days back at camp in between and one cannot keep up that kind of tempo for very long."