Troops ill-prepared for risky Afghan mission, MPs warn

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British troops being sent to Afghanistan are likely to stay longer than the three years claimed by the Government, and the success of the highly dangerous mission is "by no means certain", according to a damning report by MPs.

The House of Commons Defence Committee expressed a raft of major concerns in the report yesterday. They warned that the armed forces are in danger of "overstretch" with the near 6,000-strong deployment, and added that Britain may be asked to supply even more troops if the security situation in the country worsens.

The MPs noted the "reluctance" of Adam Ingram, the armed forces minister, "to discuss an exit strategy" from Afghanistan, and asked the Ministry of Defence to be "more forthcoming" and publicly state the targets by which it will measure the "success" of the deployment.

The thinly veiled analogy was with Iraq, where British and US forces are preparing to withdraw, claiming "mission accomplished" even as the country slides further into a bloody civil war.

The committee's report expressed "deep concern" that the troops going into Helmand, the most dangerous part of the country, may lack adequate air cover during combat.

It also demanded the MoD produce evidence that the RAF's Hercules transport aircraft were fitted with adequate "defensive aids suites" to protect them from ground attack. An RAF Hercules was shot down in Iraq last year. The MPs revealed they had received a letter from a former Hercules pilot saying "resources had been a constraint" in fitting defences.

The MPs also asked the Government to be candid about the exact role of British troops in the "dangerous counter-narcotics mission" tackling opium production. The report said: "The opium trade flourishes and the livelihoods of many people rely on it. ... Therefore it is likely the more successful the deployment is at impeding the drugs trade, the more it will come under attack from those involved in it."

The defence committee's report further criticised the MoD for failing to ensure that British troops received training in the care of prisoners.

The MPs reminded the MoD that the British Government's responsibilities for the welfare of the detainees did not end when they were handed over to Afghan authorities. Both the US and Afghan authorities have faced widespread criticism from human rights groups over abuse of detainees. Many of those imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay were initially arrested in Afghanistan.

The report said: "We call on the MoD to provide greater clarity about the UK forces' responsibilities to detainees before they are handed over to Afghan security forces ... [The MoD's] duty of care to detainees does not end once they have been handed over to Afghan authorities."

The MoD had initially told the committee that although southern Afghanistan was "less stable" than the north, where British forces have been previously deployed, "there were no security challenge which posed a strategic threat to Afghanistan".

When the MPs questioned Mr Ingram about this assertion following accounts in the media, including The Independent, from Afghanistan on increasing attacks in a fresh offensive by a resurgent Taliban, he conceded to the committee: "You are right in saying when we looked at this initially that there was a different climate than that exists now". However, he insisted that the danger may have been overstated.

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