Lest we forget

In Afghan fields, the poppies blow... and another British soldier dies in a war without end
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The Independent Online

Staff at the British embassy in Kabul are wearing poppies in honour of the country's dead in Afghanistan, as well as the other conflicts in which British soldiers have fought over the past century. But Afghans do not understand the meaning of the symbol.

"Why do you have that paper flower pinned to your clothes?" the proprietor of a bookshop in Kabul asked a British customer yesterday. " I have seen the newscasters on BBC and Sky wearing them too. What is it for?" The explanation seemed to leave the bookseller even more confused – in Afghanistan, poppies have a very different significance.

The income from opium poppies is helping to fuel a conflict in which Taliban insurgents, drug traffickers and simple resistance to the presence of foreigners in southern Afghanistan are often indistinguishable. It is a struggle which has so far claimed the lives of 83 British soldiers, 57 of them in combat. The latest death occurred yesterday: a soldier serving with 36 Engineer Regiment was killed when his vehicle rolled off a bridge near Sangin in Helmand province, the scene of some of the most bitter fighting since British forces were sent to there early last year.

Although British troops in Helmand and the Canadians in Kandahar have regained some of the territory lost to the Taliban, they simply do not have the troops in numbers to hold the ground. As a result, repeated operations have to be undertaken to recapture strategic positions.

The battle being waged against the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan can seem remote even in Kabul, let alone Britain, though insecurity has crept closer to the Afghan capital in recent months. A new front was opened this week, when more than 70 people were killed and more than 100 injured in the northern town of Baghlan in the worst suicide bombing in the country's history.

Almost 60 schoolchildren who had lined up to greet MPs visiting a sugar factory were among the dead. Such is the fear of violence spreading that yesterday the Education Minister ordered that it was no longer safe for children to be included in public ceremonies of this kind.

The northern Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras who dominate the life of the capital certainly do not want the Taliban back. But they fail to understand why the battles being fought against the Pashtuns, both Afghan and Pakistani, who constitute the majority of Taliban fighters, along with a small but significant number of extremists from other Muslim countries, have not made their own lives safer. They are uneasy too at the growing toll of Afghan civilians, often in air strikes called in by Nato forces spread too thinly on the ground.

Despite urgent appeals most of the other Nato members have failed to come up with troops for Afghanistan and even some who have deployed there have put caveats on these forces, effectively shielding them from full-scale combat.

And if Afghans are unclear about the purpose of the war, now into its seventh year, the British public can often seem no less bemused. Marchers who recently carried posters down Whitehall demanding, "Stop the war in Iraq and Afghanistan", are by no means the only ones seeing the two conflicts as one and the same. In vain can London and Washington argue that they are completely different, when they failed to conclude one, before plunging into the other. The worsening violence in Afghanistan since the beginning of last year, which has claimed thousands of Afghan lives as well as all but a handful of the British casualties, has been the result.

British commanders in the country openly admit the Taliban's propaganda has been far more effective than their own. One of its most telling slogans, addressed to Nato, has been: "You have the watches but we have the time. " In other words, all the money and technology Nato has brought to bear will be of no avail, because its commitment will not last.

Farmers in Afghanistan may soon be subsidised in an effort to stop them producing heroin, in a radical plan proposed by Gordon Brown. Ministers are looking at introducing a system of payments, similar to the Common Agricultural Policy, to encourage farmers away from opium production.

Britain has recognised that it must emphasise, both to Afghans and its own people, that it is in for the long haul. The beefing up of the diplomatic mission in Kabul – which will in due course move back to the grand 19th-century premises built in Lord Curzon's day – is one clear token of that. And this week the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, made it clear that the British military commitment would last at least until 2010. Mr Browne announced that a temporary brigade headquarters was being set up to command British forces in Afghanistan after October 2009, when the current British deployment ends, to April 2010.

"The precise size and duration of the UK military in Afghanistan will depend on a number of factors, including the ability of the Afghan security forces to take greater responsibility for the security of their own country," he said on Thursday. "However, to ensure that any forces we might deploy are properly prepared and commanded, it is necessary for the brigade headquarters to be established now."

The Nato secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, appealed for more troop contributions, disclosing that the alliance has only half the trainers it needs for Afghan security forces, adding: "This is obviously a problem. We have to find an answer and member nations need to do more".

By contrast, the Taliban fighters are increasingly well trained and using sophisticated techniques, according to the commander of the 1,200-strong Polish contingent in Afghanistan. Brigadier General Marek Tomaszycki added: "We have more and more examples of tactics which are used in Iraq and are being imported to Afghanistan. We have to consider the enemy as very dangerous."

But even so, the baffled bookseller of Kabul is not alone in needing to be reminded why British troops are in his country. They went there to oust a movement which had reduced Afghanistan to anarchy and penury, and gave safe haven to al-Qa'ida, which wants to Talibanise the whole world.

But at least Britain now has more troops stationed in Afghanistan – 7,700 – than it does in Iraq. They face a task made more difficult because of the West's, and their own Government's, fitful attention to it. But the 83 British soldiers who have given their lives there will not have not done so in vain if Britain stays the course – something it owes to its own people, as well as to those of Afghanistan.

Troubled country still in turmoil

* October 2001: British-backed, US-led air strikes against Taliban strongholds. Taliban leader Mullah Omar flees to Pakistan border as his fightersare forced to withdraw

* December 2001: The Bonn deal on the future of Afghanistan creates an interim government, headed by the US-backed Hamid Karzai

* January 2002: First contingent of foreign peacekeepers arrives with a year-long mandate

* May 2002: UN Security Council extends mandate of International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) until December 2002

* June 2002: The first post-Taliban "loya jirga", or grand assembly, selects Hamid Karzai as interim president

* July 2002: Attacks increase throughout country and a vice-president, Haji Abdul Qadir, is shot dead in Kabul

* September 2002: Assassination attempt on Hamid Karzai in Kandahar

* August 2003: Nato takes control of security in Kabul, its first operational commitment outside Europe

* January 2004: The Assembly backs a new national constitution paving way for elections

* September 2004: Another attempt on life of Karzai who is confirmed as president with 55 per cent of vote in first elections for a generation

* May 2005: Details emerge of alleged prisoner abuse by US forces at detention centres including Bagram air base.

* February 2006: International aid donors pledge more than $10bn (£5.7bn) in reconstruction aid over five years

* Spring/summer 2006: Taliban regroup in the south and mount a series of fierce attacks there and elsewhere

* July-October 2006: Nato peacekeeping forces, totalling 18,500 and rising, take control of security, first in the south of Afghanistan and then throughout the country

* May 2007: Taliban's most senior military commander, Mullah Dadullah, is killed during fighting with US, Afghan forces

* Spring 2007: Renewed efforts made by British-led coalition troops to force Taliban out of south

* October 2007: Violent incidents, especially suicide bombings, are up 30 per cent on last year, with an average of 550 a month

* November 2007: Sixty-eight people die in Afghanistan's worst suicide bombing in Mazar province, an area previously spared such violence. Six members of parliament and dozens of children are among the dead. A senior Nato commander admits Taliban insurgents were now "better prepared" than they were a year ago