UK's Afghanistan role 'set to be scaled down'

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The Independent Online

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth today suggested that the UK's role in Afghanistan could be scaled down over the next 12 months, as the death toll passed the 200 mark.

Mr Ainsworth said that reaching the sad milestone, after the 200th and 201st soldiers lost their lives yesterday, was "grim".

But he went on: "I genuinely believe that in the next year or so that we will be able to show a degree of progress.

"It will not be at a situation where we will be able to pull back, but we will increasingly see the Afghan national army taking the front.

"We will be more in a mentoring and a training situation, you know, giving them the steer and the capacity and the knowledge to be able to do the job that they will need to do."

The remarks, made on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show, were greeted with scepticism by opposition parties, who accused the Government of spinning to try to cover up its errors.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said: "Has the Government made an agreement with the Americans to hand over Helmand to them?

"If so we should be told about it. Or is it just spin designed to detract from the failure of the Government to fully equip our troops in Afghanistan?"

Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said it was not "remotely possible" for UK troops to leave the front line within a year, and called on ministers to be "honest".

"Rather than trying to sway public opinion with false optimism, Bob Ainsworth must admit we need a fundamental change of gear, and a shift from a purely military campaign to one which focuses on achieving peace through meaningful political engagement, co-operation and progress," he added.

One of the latest casualties was from 2nd Battalion The Royal Welsh, and died yesterday at the Royal College of Defence Medicine, in Selly Oak, West Midlands. His vehicle patrol had been hit by a roadside bomb near Musa Qal'eh in Helmand Province on Thursday morning.

The other serviceman was from 2nd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers. He was caught up in an explosion while on a foot patrol near Sangin in Helmand Province yesterday. Both men's next of kin have been informed, and they are expected to be named tomorrow.

The death toll for this month now stands at 10, after July saw the loss of 22 lives - the bloodiest spell for UK forces since operations began in October 2001. Altogether, 201 service personnel have died in the campaign.

Gordon Brown expressed his "sorrow" at the news, but insisted that the mission in Afghanistan remained "vital".

"In these moments of sorrow and sadness, we must never forget why we are in Afghanistan and why people are making the sacrifice that they are making," he told reporters.

"Three quarters of the terrorist plots that hit Britain derive from the mountain areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is to make Britain safe and the rest of the world safe that we must make sure we honour our commitment to maintain a stable Afghanistan."

Amid controversy over equipment shortages - particularly helicopters - the Prime Minister also pledged that the Government would provide support.

"I want everybody to know today that every effort that we make is to ensure the best security and the best equipment for our troops," he said.

"That's why we've increased dramatically the resources we are spending in Afghanistan to deal with this new kind of threat, which is the roadside bomb, the electronic devices, the guerrilla warfare being practised by the Taliban."

Colonel Richard Kemp, who commanded British forces in Afghanistan between 2003 and 2004, insisted he still believed the campaign was protecting the public in this country.

But he said that passing 200 deaths could sow seeds of doubt in the minds of the British public.

"The thing it changes, really, is the way people in this country look at what's going on and I think there will be questions asked about whether what we're achieving in Afghanistan, and what we're hoping to do in Afghanistan, is worth this number of British soldiers' lives," he told the BBC.

Yesterday the Ministry of Defence named three British troops killed providing security for a meeting ahead of Afghanistan's crunch presidential elections.

Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton, 23, of 40th Regiment Royal Artillery, was wounded in the initial attack in Sangin on Thursday.

Captain Mark Hale, 42, and Rifleman Daniel Wild, 19, both from 2nd Battalion The Rifles, were carrying him to a helicopter landing zone when there was a second explosion, killing L/Bdr Hatton and Rfn Wild. Capt Hale died of his injuries later in hospital.

Their identities were released as the Taliban signalled their determination to disrupt the polls, due to be held on Thursday, by staging a car bomb attack near the British embassy in Kabul.

Four people were killed, but no UK service personnel or embassy staff were hurt in the blast outside the headquarters of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force.

The MoD will issue injury figures covering the last two weeks of July tomorrow morning, which are expected to reflect fierce fighting during the offensive against the Taliban.