UK general admits to mistakes in Helmand

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The Independent Online

Nato forces are set to launch a spring "surge" in Afghanistan in an attempt to drive the Taliban out of Helmand and seal infiltration points along the Pakistani border.

General David Richards, the outgoing British officer commanding Nato forces in the country, said yesterday the operation, one of the largest to be launched in the current campaign, was critical in stopping the Taliban re-establishing themselves in the country.

The US will provide an extra 3,200 troops and Poland 1,000 for use in the operation, to be codenamed Nawriz. British forces expect to take part in missions outside Helmand, said General Richards. According to senior defence sources, Britain is likely to send a battalion plus support - about 800 in total - to add to the 6,000 already in Afghanistan.

General Richards, who finishes his tenure as commander in four days, has repeatedly requested, and been denied, a reserve force. Washington has now announced, however, that his US successor, General Dan K McNeill, will get such a force when he takes over.

Giving a valedictory account of his command, Gen Richards, outlined the proposed future strategy: "General McNeill will inherit an enduring plan. He has got the force I wanted and I am envious. He got it partly because some of us kept asking, making ourselves unpopular in the process. I wish him the best of luck. I am sure he will use this theatre reserve effectively." General Richards added that although Taliban forces suffered heavy losses last summer and autumn in the Kandahar area, the lack of the reserve meant many managed to escape, necessitating the new offensive. "If I had had the force I could have closed the gap which appeared held more and stopped them from getting back. There are now Taliban there which would not have happened if we had the reserve."

General Richards also said publicly for the first time that he believed that the policy of British troops setting up "platoon houses"in Helmand, which led to fierce fighting and the deaths of British soldiers, eight in just one location, had been a mistake. He also revealed he had not been consulted on the policy, implemented just before he assumed command.

British forces had arranged local peace deals in Helmand under which they had withdrawn in return for pledges that the Taliban would be kept out. The Americans, however, have been sceptical of such deals and there is strong apprehension among the British that they will take a much more aggressive stance.