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Brits, NATO Need to Stand Firm in Afghanistan

By Gerard Baker

When it was decided last year that Nato forces would take over from American troops in one of the more dangerous parts of Afghanistan, US leaders held their breath.

There have long been doubts in Washington about the willingness of Europeans to put themselves in harm's way in the war on terrorism. Though Nato countries have been supplying the bulk of the military presence in Afghanistan for three years now, most of their operations have been of the low-intensity sort.

The primary goal of Nato's International Security Assistance Force has been peacekeeping and reconstruction of the less threatening parts of the ravaged country. Italian, Spanish, Canadian, German, Dutch and other troops have been doing valuable work in north and west Afghanistan. But the main part of the war-fighting against Taleban and al Qaeda forces in eastern and southern areas has been the responsibility of US forces, mainly in the still American-run Operation Enduring Freedom.

The fear has long been that many of the Nato troops operating in Afghanistan did not seem to be up to the task of actual fighting. This is no reflection on those countries' servicemen, most of whom are brave warriors and eager to take on the bad guys. It was a comment on the political willingness of their governments to fight the good fight if it meant they might incur significant casualties. These governments have imposed all kinds of restrictions, called "caveats", on the way their forces can conduct themselves in ISAF. These include restrictions on planes flying at night, for example, or rules that require soldiers not to fire on the enemy until they are fired on first.

But concerns about the handover in the Kandahar area and nearby Helmand province from the US to Nato were assuaged in large part by the decision to give the lead role in the early phase of the action to British troops. The Brits operate under far fewer restrictions and, as Iraq, where more than 100 British have now died, has already shown, the British people seem to have a high level of tolerance for casualties, even when the war is unpopular.

But just a few weeks into the British deployment there are alarming signs that a combination of bungled strategy, a confusion of aims , and most catastrophically, woeful under-resourcing of the operation risks producing serious British losses - with potentially disastrous consequences for the broader war in the volatile country.

Six British soldiers have been killed in the last month - three this week, including the first ever British Moslem soldier to die in the war on terror. British forces, including paratroopers and Royal Marines, have been involved in some of the most intense fighting since the Taleban were ejected from Kabul five years ago.

This, despite the fact that, when he signed the order to send UK forces, John Reid, the defence secretary, said "ideally" the British would complete their three-year mission "without a shot being fired." It was a statement of breathtaking complacency that should be coming back to haunt him, if he had not been, fortuitously, reshuffled into another, more senior job two months ago by Tony Blair.

But that complacency was underscored by the decision to deploy 3,300 British troops. That sounds like a sizeable number, but with a long logistics tail, British commanders says the actual number of troops doping the fighting in the treacherous territory against possibly thousands of the enemy is about 300.

Not only do British forces seem to be desperately short-handed for the fight, they are being asked to conduct multiple tasks, some of which seem to directly conflict with each other.

Some have been fighting alongside American soldiers in Operation Mountain Thrust against a resurgent Taleban. But their overall objective ahs supposedly been to win the "hearts and minds of the local Afghans in an are that has long been a base for Islamist extremists. But worst of all, they are also there, according to the British government, to dismantle the poppy-growing trade and the billion-dollar drugs business it produces, the principal economic activity of Afghanistan.

Since most of the villagers depend on the heroin business for their livelihood, the chances of winning already skeptical hearts and minds looks slim - and reports from the area suggest the British have been met with widespread hostility.

The real risk now is that woefully insufficient British soldiers are flirting with a military disaster. If they suffer serious reverses the consequences for Nato and America could be dire. An increasingly sullen and war-weary British public is likely to blame the government at home and the US-led war on terror for any setbacks. Poor planning and insufficient forces could turn the British against another Afghan war - a century and a half after they were defeated there.

The US and its allies need urgently to figure out precisely what the mission is in this turbulent but crucial part of Afghanistan -and then commit sufficient resources to succeed. That may mean tens of thousands more servicemen from coalition countries ready to join the struggle.

If they shrink from that they risk sustaining a military reversal that could be as big a victory for terrorism as the July 7 attacks the citizens of London will be commemorating this weekend.

Gerard Baker is US Editor and Assistant Editor of The Times of London. Email: gerard.baker@thetimes.co.uk

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