Afghanistan and Iraq: A tale of two conflicts

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The Independent Online

Why are we there?

Iraq: British troops have been in Iraq since 2003 and are now part of a UN-authorised, US-led multinational force that provides for the troops to remain until the Iraqi forces "assume full responsibility" for the country's security and stability. The UN has extended the mandate until the end of December next year, but left an opening for the sovereign Iraqi government that will emerge from elections next month to review it.

Afghanistan: The British have been in Afghanistan since the 2001 war and now serve under Nato in the UN-mandated multinational force known as the International Security Assistance Force. Isaf's role is to help the fledgling democratic government in Kabul combat the insurgency and improve infrastructure. Isaf is separate from the US Operation Enduring Freedom in southern Afghanistan where troops are hunting Taliban leaders and al-Qa'ida elements.

How many troops?

Iraq: Britain has 8,000 in the Basra sector of southern Iraq, although the insurgency has forced the troops to curtail their missions outside their bases. Ninety-seven British soldiers have been killed in Iraq - 64 in hostile action. British forces now seldom venture into Basra, Iraq's second city, leaving security there in the hands of the Iraqi police. Violence erupted recently when British forces stormed a police station to rescue two SAS soldiers arrested by Iraqi police.

Afghanistan: Until yesterday, there were 1,000 British troops in the International Security Assistance Force. The Government announced that 250 more troops from units in the 16 Air Assault Brigade and Joint Helicopter Command are join them as Britain prepares to take control of Isaf headquarters in May. The exact number of British troops who will be in Afghanistan in May has not yet been decided.

What are the continuing problems?

Iraq: The insurgency above all, which continues unabated with its daily toll of car bombings and killings across the country, although the situation is calmer in the Kurdish north. Troops are involved in combat more than "hearts and minds" operations. Although most Iraqis welcomed the overthrow of Saddam, as long as foreign troops are in Iraq they will be perceived by Iraqis as an occupying force, a contributory factor in the strength of the armed resistance.

Afghanistan: The insurgency has not abated and even appears to be gaining strength, staging attacks not only in the south but also in Kabul. The rules of engagement for the Nato-led troops in the south have still to be approved, but could lead to British troops being put more frequently in the line of fire. Although Afghans welcomed the overthrow of the Taliban, the longer foreign troops remain in the country, the greater the risk it will be seen as occupation.

What's the exit strategy?

Iraq: A gradual pull-out starting next year, and according to the most optimistic scenario, completed next year. The Government has begun to talk openly about this, but wants to ensure an orderly withdrawal. Nobody wants to see an exit like the US retreat from Saigon. The Government insists that British forces will only leave when the Iraqis are ready to take over - something which seems to be a distant prospect at this stage.

Afghanistan: The Government hopes that at the end of Britain's nine-month command of Isaf, there will be a significant reduction in forces in Afghanistan. But officials insist there is a long-term commitment to the Afghan government to improve security. US officials have been discussing with British and other allies the next stage of the transition, which would no longer be predominantly military. But given the level of the insurgency, that could be some time off.