Thousands of UK troops may be sent to Afghanistan next year

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain and the US are both set to step up their troop presence in Afghanistan, which faces a presidential election next month and a fraught parliamentary election early next year, that could see a confrontation with the country's powerful warlords.

Britain and the US are both set to step up their troop presence in Afghanistan, which faces a presidential election next month and a fraught parliamentary election early next year, that could see a confrontation with the country's powerful warlords.

The US has confirmed it will send up to 1,100 extra troops in time for the 9 October presidential vote, amid increasingly urgent pleas by the interim President, Hamid Karzai, for greater security and a warning by the American ambassador to Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, of a possible "Tet offensive" by militants in Afghan cities, echoing the uprising that hastened the departure of American forces from Vietnam.

A far bigger British deployment is being mooted, meanwhile, to take place early in 2005, a critical time when a series of dangerous security problems are expected to converge. The Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Mike Jackson, says plans have been made to send a headquarters staff and a brigade-sized force of around 8,000 peacekeeping soldiers to Afghanistan.

Early next year Mr Karzai, who is widely expected to be re-elected, will be under intense pressure to deal with warlords who have failed to disarm. A major crackdown on the booming narcotics trade is also expected, possibly provoking rural resistance, and parliamentary elections planned for April are predicted to be much more violent than the presidential vote, because local strongmen will almost certainly fight each other for power.

If the deployment went ahead, British soldiers could also expect to be sent to dangerous areas of the south and east where the Taliban's guerrilla war continues unabated, under long-nurtured plans to expand peacekeepers from the major cities to garrisons known as Provincial Reconstruction Teams.

Gen Jackson revealed the plan during a visit to Iraq this week. Sending such a large force to Afghanistan - roughly equal to the number of British troops in Iraq - would be a significant change.

"The Army is only as big as it is," he said, "but one-offs like this can be done. We have got to prioritise if we have to make a sustained contribution to Afghanistan. We couldn't have a sustained brigade in both Iraq and Afghanistan; the balance depends on events."

Currently there are only a few hundred British soldiers in Afghanistan. They patrol in Kabul and man a much-praised garrison in the flashpoint northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. There about 200 soldiers form a buffer between two of the country's most powerful feuding warlords.

About 18,000 US combat troops continue to hunt the Taliban and al-Qa'ida remnants in much of the country, although the American military is increasingly trying to switch from combat to peacekeeping operations. However, the security situation is deteriorating, and there has been only limited success in training Afghan security forces. A fresh infusion of international troops may be the only way to stop the rickety political settlement from unravelling, and keep Tony Blair's promise to the Afghan people that he would not walk away from them.

The peacekeeping force would be under the headquarters of the Nato Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, commanded by a British general. Most of the staff would be British. The corps would replace the force in Afghanistan led by France, Germany and the Netherlands. The Dutch have been criticised for failing to find more soldiers to provide security for next month's election, which the Taliban have vowed to wreck.

The peacekeepers, largely confined to Kabul and some of the more peaceful cities, such as Kunduz in the north, have also had operational problems that have limited their effectiveness. Rules designed to protect their soldiers, such as not patrolling beyond set distances from bases, have made life particularly difficult for the German garrison in Kunduz.

British troops played an important role in the dangerous first days of the peacekeeping force after the Taliban's fall in 2001. They have always been popular with Afghans, nearly all of whom want them as desperately needed protection against criminals and terrorists. The British are also generally regarded as the most professional and effective peacekeepers by other international forces in Afghanistan.

Comments