Patrick Mercer: Afghanistan needs more men, not fewer

Public support for the war in Afghanistan will waver as the list of British dead lengthens. Back-up is now more vital than ever
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The Independent Online

The news couldn't get much worse. Every day the faces of teenagers and men in the prime of their lives dominate the front pages of our papers and TV screens, soldiers killed in one of the biggest operations that the British Army has mounted since the Korean War. And every week, our political leaders read out a litany of dead heroes at Prime Minister's Questions. Is it worth it?

Certainly, the objectives for which our men are fighting and dying are, I believe, crucial. The briefest glance at Afghanistan's history shows both its strategic position and the fact that British involvement is nothing new. But the arguments that caused Britain to be involved there during the time of the Raj and the Soviet invasion in 1979 have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

The Taliban insurgency is a regional and tribal one that spreads across the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan and has engulfed a vast amount of US and allied military resources. But unless we can control this threat, there is a real possibility of Pakistan's collapse, with nuclear weapons falling into the hands of our enemies. Can anyone believe that fundamentalists who use suicide bombers and are in league with al-Qa'ida would not use them?

Plangent voices have been raised over the past few days suggesting that British troops should not be in the region. Others have suggested that places such as Helmand in the southern part of the country were not violent before Britain became involved there three years ago.

While it is true that there was no fighting in Helmand, this was because the US-led military campaign Operation Enduring Freedom was concentrated entirely in the eastern part of the country while the south fell steadily under the influence of a resurgent Taliban. So unless our enemies had been challenged in this area, there would be no possibility of Afghanistan's fragile democracy spreading any further than the outskirts of the capital Kabul and the relatively quiet north of the country. Similarly, the Taliban would have had increasingly free rein on Pakistan's borders.

Which sounds fine, until you realise how poorly prepared and equipped our forces were for intervening in this particular hot spot. I, and others, objected strongly to the Government's plans to send one understrength battle-group with a minimum of air and fire support to do the job. We also questioned the Government's understanding of its status as the lead nation in the poppy control programme. Sadly, we were proved right, as, a couple of years on, we have had to deploy almost 9,000 troops to the area while the poppy harvest has almost doubled.

This is all especially worrying when you consider the parallel events in Iraq. In that country we committed too few troops and too few humanitarian resources to make a difference; and there never appeared to be a fully thought-through campaign plan. We need to know from the Government what it believes the medium-term measures of success are in Afghanistan and how they see its conclusion.

Four years ago, there was a real crisis between the Tony Blair-led government and the Service chiefs. Broadly speaking, the military wanted to concentrate primarily on Afghanistan and allow the US to lead in Iraq. But politically, this was not acceptable, and we ended up with war on two fronts, insufficient resources to deal with either, and muddled political and strategic thinking.

Now that Iraq is winding down, there are more assets available to dedicate to Afghanistan if there is the political will to do so. Successive commanders have been asking the Government to commit more manpower to the theatre so that ground can be held, reasoning that there is no point in capturing territory if the troops who have fought there are then withdrawn. If we wish to create conditions for peace and for an Afghan version of democracy to spread, then the manpower must be made available. So today's Independent on Sunday report that 1,500 troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan after the election is dreadful news.

Along with more men, the campaign needs some extra armoured vehicles, but above all else, it needs many more helicopters. It is tempting to be drawn down the path of arguing over which vehicle is best for use in Afghanistan. The answer is: none. Obviously, there has got to be some road transport, but with the power and guile of the Taliban bombers, no wheeled or tracked vehicle is going to be proof against massive improvised explosive devices. While helicopters are still vulnerable, they do allow troops to be used to maximum effect and are much less predictable than ground transport. A government that can find billions of pounds to bail out the banks has no excuse for not procuring enough helicopters for our forces.

But the real test will be the public's tolerance for casualties. When there are simply too many names of the dead for the Prime Minister to read out every Wednesday, a tipping point will have been reached. And when that judgement is made, Britain's commitment to this operation will be under threat – as will our continued alliance with America and Pakistan.

Unlike in Iraq, we have simply got to do this job properly, understanding that it may take many years to nurture democracy in Afghanistan, rebuild Afghan forces and police, and repair the confidence of the ordinary people of Afghanistan.

In past campaigns, we learnt that today's foes can be tomorrow's allies and we must not be afraid of trying to drive a wedge between al-Qa'ida and the Taliban. Too many lives have now been lost and too much is at stake for this campaign to be abandoned: it will be bloody and costly, but we owe it to our dead to see it through.

Patrick Mercer, a former infantry officer, is now Tory MP for Newark and chairman of the Commons counter-terrorism sub-committee