Leading article: A dangerously misrepresented mission

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Five British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan in the past three weeks. That is tragic but, as the Defence minister, Tom Watson, told the House of Commons yesterday, everybody had always known it was going to be dangerous.

This is not true. When he announced the deployment of British troops to the region, the peripatetic John Reid, the then Defence Secretary, actually said he hoped the 3,300 servicemen would complete their mission "without a shot being fired". They would be involved, backroom briefings said, in only pre-emptive "deep strategic manoeuvres". Clashes with insurgents would be a rarity. All British commanders were expecting was a few token rounds to be fired by the "remnants" of the Taliban.

It is all looking rather different now. British troops are averaging one enemy contact every three days. They have been subjected to well-organised, well-armed and full-on ambushes, one of which involved 700 militants and lasted for three days. British squaddies are now dubbing Helmand province the South Armagh of Afghanistan.

It may be alarmist to speak, as one MP did yesterday, of a "British Vietnam" but it is clear that the mission is turning out to be far more dangerous than the public or backbenchers were led to believe just a few weeks ago. The avowed British strategy is to clear the area of rebels in order to bring development to the region. Hearts and minds will be followed by schools and bridges. Troops and civilian engineers are to work on "quick impact" projects, providing street lighting or clean water equipment, with schools and mobile health clinics to follow. Commanders on the ground say nothing of an anti-narcotics strategy.

The Taliban, however, are telling the local people that the British are there to destroy their poppy crops and livelihood. Producing opium is the only industry in this arid region, which has had its highest-ever poppy harvest this year. Helmand province produces a quarter of the world's opium. Resistance is coming from an unholy alliance of warlords, drug traffickers and religious fundamentalists, which casts serious doubt on the claim that 80 per cent of the local people are "floating voters" who could become allies of the Western forces.

On the ground army officers are now talking about their strategy taking 10, maybe 15, years to succeed. All this gives growing cause for concern in an area which, barely a century ago, was the graveyard of thousands of British troops. If only we had concentrated on the Afghan operation three years ago, rather than diverting attention and manpower to Iraq, we would not now face the peril of being bogged down on two fronts at once.

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