The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan jumped to 184 following the announcement on Friday of eight deaths within 24 hours, and has now surpassed the toll of 179 in Iraq.
Why have losses mounted so sharply?
Partly because we and the 4,000 US marines recently sent to Helmand Province are actively seeking out the enemy, in an offensive aimed not only at allowing next month's elections to take place, but at pushing the Taliban permanently out of the densely populated strip along the Helmand river. New rules curbing air strikes, in an effort to reduce loss of support caused by civilian casualties, may also put ground forces at greater risk. But the vast majority of British deaths and injuries are caused not by fighting but by "improvised explosive devices" planted under dirt roads, or in walls and ditches. Last month there were a record 736 IED "incidents".
Is the troops' equipment at fault?
Complaints about personal kit, such as boots and body armour, have largely been dealt with. But many argue that lightly armoured vehicles such as the Snatch Land Rover and the Viking should have been replaced long ago with heavier models. Some say they still have a role, and that mobility and tactics are also important in preventing deaths. Last week Lord Guthrie, former chief of the defence staff, blamed Gordon Brown's parsimony as chancellor for what many senior officers see as a critical shortage: the lack of heavy-lift helicopters such as the Chinook, vital for moving troops and equipment quickly.
Is this offensive succeeding?
Hard to tell. Officers say heavy casualties have been inflicted on the Taliban, but the Ministry of Defence has a history of announcing the start of boldly named operations, often in the same small area of Helmand, with nothing heard later about results. The most dangerous district, Sangin, which saw five more British deaths on Friday, has repeatedly been declared free of insurgents, only for them to seep back later – a process the troops call "mowing the grass". The test of the current operation will not be how many Taliban fighters have been killed, but whether the arrival of US reinforcements in Helmand will allow Nato troops to keep control of the ground they have seized, win the confidence of locals and enable reconstruction and development to take place – the "clear, hold and build" strategy.
Isn't this what British forces have been trying to do for three and a half years?
Yes, but the initial force of 3,300 was far too small and completely unprepared for what awaited them, with the then Defence Secretary, John Reid, blithely hoping they could complete their mission "without firing a shot". They have fired four million since then, and next to no development has taken place, although that might change if the Kajaki dam ever begins to produce hydro-electricity. Sir Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's former ambassador to the UN and Iraq, says the army has been "holding a wall up" in Helmand, but "no one has come along to build a buttress" of development, adding that "people don't understand" what British troops in Helmand have to do with creating stability.
With the Americans, there are now more than 12,000 troops in Helmand. Is that enough?
That remains to be seen. It would take 100,000 troops to pacify every area of Afghanistan's largest province. One day the Afghan army might be able to provide those numbers, but training being stepped up only now. Instead of reaching a total of 134,000 in five years, the deadline has been moved forward to 2011, and the Pentagon is talking about an Afghan army twice as large. Either way, there will be a shortage of Afghan troops for several years, and President Barack Obama is already resisting calls from US commanders for a much bigger reinforcement than the 10,000 troops he has already agreed to, which will bring the American force to 68,000 this year.
But we keep being told that the "solution" in Afghanistan is not exclusively, or even mainly, military.
It is true that away from the south and east development is taking place in many areas – millions of girls are going to school, for example. But President Hamid Karzai's government, which seems certain to win another term on 20 August, is widely seen as ineffectual and corrupt. Its authority has suffered from the Bush administration's reluctance to engage in "nation building", and its willingness in 2001 to do deals with vicious warlords, who remain entrenched to this day, to oust al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. Only now is the US focusing on the development side of the equation, but these efforts are easily disrupted by the Taliban. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think-tank, recently published a paper arguing that instead of focusing on Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar province, Nato should take urgent action "to stop and reverse the Taliban's progress in the north, while reinforcing and safeguarding the Kabul region, or risk losing control of the entire country".
We kicked out al-Qa'ida in 2001, and it is now based in Pakistan, from where it is undermining other states, such as Somalia. What has fighting the Taliban got to do with what Gordon Brown calls "the fight against terrorism"?
One answer might be that if Afghanistan fell to a resurgent Taliban, al-Qa'ida would return as well, and nuclear-armed Pakistan would be far more vulnerable as a result. If the extremists gained control there, it would become the world's most dangerous state. Nato forces cannot tackle al-Qa'ida directly across the border in Pakistan, but their presence puts pressure on Islamabad to do so, though the Pakistanis have still done little to disrupt the Taliban leadership operating more or less openly from the city of Quetta. But it would be wrong to portray the mission in Afghanistan as being purely to keep terrorism from our shores. The fact is that we owe the Afghans: first we poured in weapons and money to oust the Soviet invaders in the 1980s, then neglected the country, allowing the Taliban and al-Qa'ida to move in. After 2001 we followed George Bush to Iraq, with the inevitable result that the Taliban came back in Afghanistan.
So what is our strategy? What, in short, are our troops fighting for?
Bob Ainsworth, the new Defence Secretary (the fourth in three years), says there is "no end date, only an end state", in which the Afghans can take full responsibility for their security and governance. There is little clarity on how this is going to be achieved. Without a massive effort to build up the Afghan state, which is beset by problems on every side, from the drugs trade to the almost total absence of police and administrators in many areas, the risk is that Britain and the US could end up in a vicious circle of "no development without stability, no stability without development", with our forces caught in the middle. Some, including former Brigadier Ed Butler, who commanded the first British troops to arrive in Helmand, believe that "given the reality of the environment... and the tenacity of the Taliban, we should probably be redefining what success looks like", with lower expectations among the international community as well as the Afghans. Rather than the eradication of corruption and universal female education in Afghanistan, said Malcolm Chalmers, a former Foreign Office special adviser now with the Royal United Services Institute, "most people now define success more in terms of an Afghan state secure enough to prevent al-Qa'ida re-establishing a base there. But even that involves creating a fairly strong state."
Should we just declare victory and bring our troops home?
"We could retreat to a policy of leaving the Afghans to sort themselves out," says Professor Chalmers, "and if al-Qa'ida tried to set up bases, we would bomb them from drones, as we do in Pakistan, It could come to that." But that would not only betray most Afghans, who still support the foreign presence, it would let down our most important ally, America, where President Obama is at last pursuing the policies most allies have been urging for years. And what would we say to the families and friends of the British soldiers killed in the conflict? Kelly Gore, who lost her partner, Lance Sergeant Tobie Fasfous, in April, said last week: "The only thing keeping me going is that something good will come out of all of this, that Afghanistan will get back on its feet, will drive the Taliban away and the people out there can live a normal life eventually. Unless that happens, I do think these lads have died in vain."
Strategic aims: how Britain is faring in Afghanistan
Stop terrorist plans for attacks on the UK
* MoD's main stated aims include: "Deny al-Qa'ida its Afghan base".
* Terrorist bunkers bombed out, training camps disrupted.
* Operations did not prevent attacks on London transport network.
* Fear plotting continues among terrorists in Pakistan and fghanistan.
Avoid a bloody war
* Former defence secretary John Reid said he hoped British forces would leave without "a single shot being fired".
* More than four million bullets fired by the British Army in a year, as conflict intensified.
* More soldiers have died there, 184 in all, than in Iraq.
Catch Osama Bin Laden
* Post 9/11, al-Qa'ida's most recognisable figure became world's most wanted man.
* Afghanistan refused to extradite him before he went into hiding.
* His whereabouts unknown, remains an inspiration to insurgents.
End Taliban rule in Afghanistan
* Taliban rule included laws against educating women and activities such as watching TV. Al-Qa'ida operatives were provided with shelter.
* Military intervention ended its control in 2001.
* Taliban still an insurgent force with undeterred remnants proving a dangerous enemy.
Bring democracy to Afghanistan
* First elections run solely by the Afghan government take place next month.
* Provincial polls took place after Taliban's fall.
* Elections generate waves of violent protests.
* Nato warned the new government "remains limited" and prone to corruption.
Keep the region stable
* Armed forces want to contain targets to Afghanistan.
* Taliban insurgents crossed borders, leading to bloody battle with Pakistan army in Swat Valley, with tens of thousands fleeing their homes.
Make the streets safe
* Troops completed missions to clear unexploded mines.
* Soldiers gain increasing trust of civilians.
* Nato recently warned recently the number of civilian deaths "remains a serious concern".
* More than 2,000 Afghan civilians died last year in insurgent attacks.
Improve life for Afghanis
* British money repaired dams and provided irrigation.
* Massive increase in children going to school, including large numbers of girls for the first time.
* Average life expectancy is 44, while disease and poverty are widespread.
* Large swathes of the country are unconnected to safe water supplies.
Verdict: More work needed
Stop the drug trade
* Concentrated battle against poppy field drug barons who supply world's heroin market from Afghanistan.
* US experts fear blowing up poppy crops backfired, driving desperate farmers to sympathise with insurgent forces.
* Farmers struggling with alternative crops in the dry conditions.
Preserve oil/gas access
* Afghanistan traditionally a perfect route for exporting oil and gas to Western countries.
* US set up deals with Afghanistan's neighbours to ensure smoother exports.
* Agreements criticised for being made with countries having poor human rights records.
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