Cutting the numbers of British troops this summer in Afghanistan would be “unforgivable” and “endanger” hard-won progress at a highly critical time, the most senior UK commander in the country, Lieutenant-General Nick Carter, has stressed.
The deputy chief of Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) said that overall the transition to Afghan control was going very well. But any attempt to thin out British forces on the ground as the coming fighting season approaches would have damaging consequences.
Lt-Gen Carter spoke to The Independent as the Afghan government prepares to take over security responsibility for the country and British and Western forces look to depart from the 12-year-old war.
Lt-Gen Carter told The Independent: “It would be unforgivable if we allowed the gains of the last three years to be lost because we were not able to provide the Afghans with the support to take this through into 2014.
“Our judgement is we have to manage this in a way that retains confidence. Precipitating withdrawal that is not in line with the current plan will damage Afghan confidence.”
The forces of President Hamid Karzai are carrying out their first major operation without Western help, fighting an alliance of heavily-armed drug smugglers and the Taliban in Badakhshan in a battle which has resulted in more than 100 killed on each side, twice that number injured and residents caught in the crossfire abandoning their villages.
After initial success the Afghan troops and police sought to ask for Isaf air strikes – but the logistical means for doing so were not available. The clashes continued with mounting loss of lives and the insurgents able, using their knowledge of the terrain, to keep themselves supplied and the government forces pinned down.
Air strikes were eventually called in, leading to the killing of 30 of the most hardened fighters and a feared leader, Maulvi Hamza, claimed the district governor Daulat Mohamed – enabling the security forces to drive off the insurgents.
Jan Agha Mohamed, a police major who took part in combat at Wardaj district of Badakhshan, described what he and his men were facing. “The dushman [rebels] knew the ground well, so they could set up traps for us. We lost many men due to this,” he said. “We had a lot of difficulties moving out the injured – it would have been good to move them out by air. They put in a lot of IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We dealt with most of them but a few were very difficult and caused casualties.
“We are not afraid to fight for our country. My men and I were under fire in one position for two days: three were injured and two died. No one left their post. But we still need some help from our foreign friends in situations like this. We need the time to prepare ourselves properly. We are not talking about a long time, but it is an important time.”
The size of the British force currently stands at 8,000, a reduction of almost 2,000 as part of the schedule for withdrawal with further cuts to 5,200 by the end of the year. Most, however, are now confined to their bases as Afghan forces do the majority of the fighting.
There is apprehension in Afghanistan that this image of troops is seemingly not needed and headlines which have appeared back in the UK that “the war is over” put the Cameron government, beset by economic travails, under great pressure to reduce troop numbers further than envisaged.
Soldiers point out that the reality for them is that the war is far from over – as was illustrated by the death last week of Lance Corporal Jamie Webb of the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) in a suicide bombing at a patrol base in Nad-e-Ali in Helmand, which injured half a dozen of his comrades.
Such attacks are likely to continue against both international and Afghan forces and are likely to escalate at what is being viewed as a “defining time” in the handover process.
When pressed on the cost of the mission, Lt-Gen Carter acknowledged “a great deal of money is being saved with the plan to reduce the number of troops by the end of this year and it has to be a consideration at a time of economic hardship”. But this coming summer, he continued, “will be a genuine test of the capability and confidence of the Afghan forces, a test of the determination of the Afghan people to be with their government and a test of how much will remains in the insurgency.
“In an ideal world we would be sitting behind the wire, providing training and advice teams to Afghan patrols; the large weight of our combat power hopefully won’t be required.
“We want the Afghans to be doing it, but, if the Afghans get into trouble, or if the fighting season proves to be very difficult, we would be able to put our power back into the field to support and sustain them.”
The political future of Afghanistan is in the balance, maintained Lt-Gen Carter. “Our assessment is that the centre of gravity for the campaign at the moment is to build the confidence of those bits of the population that really matter. There will be a lot happening here in the next 18 months to two years: transition between international and Afghan forces; political transition when President [Hamid] Karzai hands over to his successor.
“These will have an effect on the economy and they’ll have an effect on the political situation. Precipitate withdrawal that is not in line with the current plan will damage Afghan confidence.”
Focusing on the Afghan troops in Helmand, where the British force is based, he said: “The 215 corps is the youngest corps in the Afghan army. It’s still having its capacity developed and its confidence developed: we don’t want completely to let go of it yet. It’s a very delicate balance because you’ve got to use tough love: you’ve got to push them to take charge, but then be around in case there are problems.”