21 January 2007
The Independent UK
The offensive reported on the previous pages highlights the very different dangers faced by UK troops in the killing fields of Helmand and the streets of Basra. By Raymond Whitaker
Britain's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed the lives of three servicemen in combat so far this month - but they are very different conflicts.
Two Royal Marines died in operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan's Helmand province, where British forces are pushing hard to dislodge as many insurgents as possible before an expected offensive which may come as early as next month. The aim is to convince the local population that the Nato forces of which the British form part are stronger than the Taliban, and that their best interests lie in opposing the insurgents.
In Iraq, by contrast, the battle for hearts and minds has all but been given up. Although efforts continue to root out rogue elements in the Basra police, troops are largely staying within their bases and seeking to avoid casualties. A steady trickle of losses to small arms fire, mortars and roadside bombs continues, however, with another soldier killed on patrol last week.
The British military, in short, is on the front foot in Afghanistan and on the back foot in Iraq. But the number of troops stationed in and around Basra - around 7,100 - is still well above the total in Helmand, where some 4,000 troops are based out of a total force in Afghanistan of about 5,200. While the US prepares to send in extra forces to seize control of Baghdad, British military chiefs have long sought to "draw down" their Iraq contingent so that the Afghan mission can be beefed up. The delays in achieving this are beginning to impose increasing strains on forward planning.
Last week the new US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, who replaced the discredited Donald Rumsfeld, toured Afghanistan as well as Iraq, where he visited Basra. In Afghanistan American commanders asked him for more troops, and Mr Gates said he was "sympathetic" to their request. He refused to be more specific, saying: "It depends on different scenarios." But in the wake of his remarks it emerged Britain was also looking at ways of stepping up its force in Afghanistan.
Hillary Clinton, who yesterday announced her presidential bid in 2008, visited Afghanistan last week with a group of US Senators. "This is the great missed opportunity that I fear we're going to stumble on, because Afghanistan is, so far, quite a success story," she said. "We should be putting troops into Afghanistan to be ready for what will be a spring offensive by the Taliban."
The US, Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, the four nations bearing the brunt of the fighting in southern Afghanistan, have for months been seeking about 2,500 more front-line troops to form a "quick reaction force", ready to intervene when clashes with the Taliban flare up. With the fighting expected to intensify within weeks as winter eases its grip, the need for such a force has become urgent. Since other Nato members refuse to commit more troops or change the rules of engagement of their contingents in Afghanistan, however, London and Washington now appear to accept that they will have to supply their own reinforcements.
Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, said he had asked for 1,200 soldiers who are due to leave soon to stay to the end of the year. But with the US now pledged to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq, it may be faced with the same problems of "overstretch" confronting British military chiefs.
What the military calls the "kinetic" nature of the conflict in Afghanistan was shown by the operation in which Lance Corporal Mathew Ford was killed. The Royal Marines were attempting to storm a Taliban fortress near Garmsir in southern Helmand when he was hit. His comrades realised he was missing when they withdrew across the Helmand river, and four of them volunteered to strap themselves to struts on the outside of an Apache helicopter in an attempt to rescue him. Although they succeeded in extracting him, his life could not be saved.
No such dramatic incident has taken place in southern Iraq since the early days of the fighting immediately after the invasion in 2003. The vicious civil war which is draining away American lives further north in Iraq has no counterpart here, but any attempt by British forces to assert their authority in and around Basra leads to an immediate spate of retaliatory attacks by groups allied to the main Shia militias, which in turn command influence in Baghdad.
But plans to reduce the British troop presence in Iraq by some 3,000 early in the year have receded, according to Louise Heywood, UK forces analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Although some hundreds might be withdrawn before the summer, she believed the security situation remained too fragile for the main drawdown to take place until the second half of 2007.
Ms Heywood added that careful thought would have to be given to the role of any reinforcements sent to southern Afghanistan. "Will they go there simply to fight the insurgency, or to build capacity for reconstruction and development, which is supposed to be their main mission?" she asked. "The situation British forces have found in Helmand is very pressing, but if more troops are sent there just to fill gaps and fight, it could simply give the Taliban more targets to shoot at."
Families mourn British soldiers who died on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan
Britain lost three servicemen in as many days last week - a soldier in Iraq and two Royal Marines in Afghanistan. They came from different corners of the country and died in different circumstances, but they had one thing in common: all three had dreamt as boys of the military life. Their deaths brought the total number of British personnel killed since 2001 to 129 in Iraq and 46 in Afghanistan.
Kingsman Alexander Green
Kingsman Green of the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment died last Saturday, aged 21. He was hit by small-arms fire in Hayy Al Muhandisn, Basra. Kingsman Green joined the Army at 19 and was identified by commanders as a professional soldier, dedicated to his job. Chris Pegman, head teacher at St Margaret's primary school in Warrington, where he was a pupil, said: "Even at that age he was keen on the Army." The military and his two-year-old son were his life.
"It was all he wanted to do," his family said. "He was living his dream."
Marine Thomas Curry
Marine Curry, also aged 21, of 42 Commando Royal Marines, was killed by small-arms fire the same day, 13 January, fighting the Taliban near Kajaki in northern Helmand, Afghanistan. "Vinders", as he was known, joined the forces aged 19. "He was always very determined," said his father. "He wanted to be there serving his country. It was what he loved." Marine Curry proposed to his girlfriend, Carla Maynard, on the phone on Christmas Day. She said: "We had some wonderful times. I just loved him so much."
Lance Corporal Mathew Ford
Lance Corporal Ford will also be remembered for his bravery. He was serving with 45 Commando, the Royal Marines, and died on Monday during an offensive to the south of Garmsir in southern Helmand, Afghanistan. Aged 30, he had planned to leave the service to settle down and start a family with his fiancée, Ina. His mother Joan said: "We are all devastated by the news of Mathew's death. His love for life and his ability to make everyone laugh will always be with us."