Into the valley of death: UK troops head into Afghan war zone

With the Army in a new abuse scandal and no exit strategy from Iraq in sight, UK troops head into another war zone
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Suicide bombings and firefights, Western troops under attack, sectarian clashes between Shia and Sunni, foreigners taken hostage. Days of escalating violence have left dozens of people dead and more than a hundred injured. This is not Iraq but Afghanistan, a conflict which has now overtaken on the grim league table of body counts - 89 killings in the last eight days in Afghanistan compared with 54 in Iraq during the same period.

It is into this maelstrom that the Royal Marines - the first batch of 5,700 British troops being sent to Afghanistan - will begin deploying this week in a mission lasting at least three years at a cost of £1bn.

With no exit strategy from Iraq in sight, British forces are entering another deadly conflict. Tony Blair's insistence that there should be no sizeable withdrawal from Iraq until the security situation appreciably improves means that contingency plans for a large-scale reduction in numbers have had to be shelved. But last week John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence, appeared to pave the way for a "significant" withdrawal from Iraq even if the country continued to face serious problems.

Senior commanders are deeply concerned about fighting a "war on two fronts". General Sir Mike Jackson, the chief of the Army, has written to Lieutenant General David Richards, the British commander who will lead Nato forces in Afghanistan, asking if he has enough troops to cope with the spiralling turmoil. Lt Gen Richards is believed to have asked for another infantry battle group, about a thousand men, but this is not feasible with the continuing commitment in Iraq.

Lord Guthrie, the former chief of defence staff, said: "The British Army is already dangerously overstretched and maintaining a force even of this size over the years will be difficult."

There are now lethal similarities in the methods used by the insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nato commanders acknowledge that terrorist techniques are being imported from Iraq to Afghanistan and Islamist fighters are entering the country in ever-increasing numbers from Pakistan.

The place where this is most evident is the province of Helmand, where most of the British forces will be deployed, and where a resurgent Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies have killed almost 100 US and Afghan troops in the past few months - the total number lost by British troops in the Iraq war.

Senior British officers have expressed concern about the apparent lack of clear direction.

Ministers have said that one of the main roles of the British troops would be to help eradicate Afghanistan's massive opium crop. But the task force would be deployed under a Nato mandate which does not allow eradication.

British commanders say they are also aware that Helmand is potentially more hazardous than Basra, where British forces have not actively engaged the Shia militias who have infiltrated the police force in large numbers.

The situation, they believe, will be more akin to central Iraq where American forces have borne the bruntof the resistance.

The similarities in the patterns of violence in Iraq and Afghanistan were highlighted in a week of strife. In the latest incident two Nepalese aid workers were kidnapped at gunpoint in the centre of the capital, Kabul. Two days earlier eight Afghan soldiers were killed by two roadside blasts in the Afghan province of Kunar. Initial reports say that at least one of the bombs was of a new infra-red type used recently in Iraq to kill British and US soldiers.

Senior US and British officials have claimed that the sophisticated Improvised Explosive Device were supplied by the Iranians to Shia insurgents in Iraq.

The attacks were in Kunar, near the Pakistani border. Six soldiers died in one blast followed by a second killing two more. Mohammed Hasan, the deputy police chief in the region, said: "The situation here is very bad. We have come under attack throughout the night."

Sixteen American soldiers were killed in Kunar last year when their helicopter was shot down. Last month, a village across the Pakistani border was hit by a US missile strike in an attempt to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy to Osama bin Laden in al-Qa'ida. Eighteen people were killed.

Also yesterday four Canadian soldiers attached to Nato forces in Afghanistan were injured by a roadside bombing in Kandahar province. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

In Herat, in western Afghanistan, police opened fire as hundreds of Sunni protesters tried to attack the consulate of Shia Iran.

This followed bitter sectarian clashes in the city during the Shia festival of Ashura in which 11 people were killed.

Meanwhile, in Iraq nine people were killed in a sectarian attack, a car bombing outside the Shia Iskan al-Shaabi mosque in the Doura district of Baghdad yesterday.

A leading Sunni cleric, Adel Khalil Dawoud, was dragged from his house by armed men wearing police uniforms. His brother, Azawi Dawoud, blamed militia supporters of the Shia religious and political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, for the abduction.

In Afghanistan, Shia and Sunni exchanged gun fire during the stand-off in Herat. Governor Sayed Hussein Anwari said: "This is not the kind of thing we are used to Afghanistan. We do not have this type of trouble between Shia and Sunni. This is caused by people trying to provoke mischief."

Ishmail Khan, Governor Anwari's predecessor who was moved by the government of President Hamid Karzai from his power base in Herat to Kabul was yesterday meeting local Shia and Sunni leaders. But Khan Alakozai, president of the Herat chamber of commerce said: "The situation will get worse unless government can control it."

Thirteen people were killed on Tuesday by a suicide bomber in Kandahar, a common weapon in Iraq, but relatively unknown until quite recently in Afghanistan. The Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah said: "More and more people are joining us to be suicide bombers. The suicide bombers will continue against coalition forces and their agents. This is part of our military strategy."

In Iraq nine people were killed yesterday in a sectarian car bombing outside the Shia Iskan al-Shabbi mosque in Baghdad.

Two invasions, two insurgencies

Sunday 5 February

38 people killed in Kandahar province as Afghan and US forces fight about 200 insurgents. Six Afghan policemen are later killed in a landmine attack. A Taliban commander is killed. Total dead: 45

In Iraq, six people were killed, including two US soldiers in a roadside bomb attack. Total dead: 6

Monday 6 February

Four Afghans killed in protests against cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. One US Marine and a suspected insurgent are killed in eastern Afghanistan. Total dead: 6

In Iraq, six people killed, including a US Marine in a bombing in Anbar. Total dead: 6

Tuesday 7 February

Suicide bomber drives a motorbike packed with explosives into police headquarters in Kandahar, killing 13. Four protesters killed trying to storm a Nato base in north-western town of Maymana. Roadside bomb kills three. Total dead: 20

In Iraq, 12 people killed, including a Sunni community leader in Fallujah and four US Marines in two bombings in Anbar. Total dead: 12

Wednesday 8 February

Three more killed protesting against the cartoons in southern town of Qalat. Total dead 3

Five Iraqis killed in suicide car bomb attack on US-Iraqi checkpoint near the Syrian border. Total dead: 5

Thursday 9 February

Hundreds clash during sectarian violence in the western city of Herat as Shia mark the festival of Ashura, leaving at least five dead and 51 wounded. Total dead: 5

In Iraq, a police colonel is killed in Ramadi. Total dead: 1

Friday, 10 February

Eight Afghan soldiers killed in a roadside bomb attack in Kunar province on the border with Pakistan. Taliban rebels purportedly urge Muslims in the east to rally against the government and coalition forces over the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed. Total dead: 8

In Iraq, at least nine people are killed in a car bomb attack on a mosque in Baghdad. Two US soldiers are killed in a roadside bombing. Two police officers are killed. Total dead: 13

Saturday 11 February

Cross-border firing from the eastern Khost province hits the tent of a nomad family in Pakistan, killing two women and injuring at least four children, according to Pakistani officials, who said the four rockets and shells were apparently fired by US forces fighting militants. Two Nepalis working for a foreign security company kidnapped in the capital Kabul. Total dead: 2

In Iraq, six militants killed by US helicopter fire. Iraqi officer assassinated and another killed by bomb. Civilian killed in Balad. Total dead: 9

Sunday 12 February

A 150-strong team of Royal Marines commandos make final preparations for their deployment to Afghanistan today. They are the first combat troops to be deployed after Britain pledged more than 3,000 troops as part of a Nato expansion in the country.

In Iraq, a doctor is shot dead in attack on a hospital in Hawija. Two civilians are killed in a roadside bomb attack in Baghdad. Total dead: 3