Afghanistan: British Hope New Troop Deployment Boosts Development, Security
By Jan Jun
British military planners are hoping the deployment of 3,300 new troops to Afghanistan's Helman Province improves reconstruction efforts in the war-ravaged south of that country. Some 1,000 British troops are already in Afghanistan to help the police the capital and hunt out remnants of Al-Qaeda and the former hard-line Taliban regime. This new, three-year deployment is expected to participate directly in Afghan rebuilding. But they are entering difficult territory, with suicide attacks on the rise in southern Afghanistan.
London, 30 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The spate of recent suicide attacks by the insurgency in southern Afghanistan will no doubt complicate matters for the newly arriving British troops.
The Taliban, drug mafias, and their sympathizers are also waging a propaganda campaign against the British forces' presence.
Michael Williams heads the Transatlantic Programs at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He says that even with superior weaponry and air support, the new British contingency faces a tough slog.
"The south is notoriously unruly, and it is not under any sort of control by [International Security Assistance Force] or [Operation Enduring Freedom] forces," Williams says. "This is the logical extension of the NATO progression now, which has started in Kabul, then went north [and] then went west. Now they need to go south and east in order to guarantee security, and then stabilize and reconstruct."
All 3,300 of the newly arriving soldiers will be dispatched to Helmand Province and placed under Canadian command. Military experts say the tasks there will be mainly focused on helping with reconstruction efforts under the United Nations mandate.
"It is called SIMIC, which is Civil-Military Collaboration, which means ensuring that there is a secure environment in which civil processes and reconstruction can take place," says Bruce Jones, a military strategies adviser to NATO. "Also expertise and capability such as digging wells, medical, road-building, certain aspects of engineering construction and de-mining."
Jones points out that there is an immense amount of work in Afghanistan, starting from the level of basic agrarian development -- particularly in a country that still earns huge amounts of cash from crops of opium poppies.
Political support at home for the mission was not automatic. The Royal United Services Institute's Williams notes that there have been fears in parliament -- and in the media -- that the British units might get bogged down in fighting insurgents, instead of rebuilding.
Opposition had eased by the time British Secretary of State for Defense John Reid presented parliament with the details last week. But will the new contingent be stuck chasing terrorists?
Mark Harper is a shadow defense minister for the Conservatives, the largest opposition party in British Parliament.
"No, the British troops that are being deployed are not going to be part of the antiterrorist Operation Enduring Freedom, which is being commanded by the Americans," Harper says. "This is a new deployment primarily focused at looking after the teams doing reconstruction in the southern provinces. So, these aren't replacing American troops; this is a new deployment where the Western forces are moving into a new part of Afghanistan."
Harper says the opposition asked the government detailed questions to clarify both the objectives and the rules of engagement for the new deployment. It also demanded that there be a sufficient number of troops sent for the operation to succeed.
Bruce Jones says the government's detailed announcement last week seems to have dispelled opposition doubts.
"The Secretary of State [Reid] has given a categorical assurance as to what is going to happen," Jones says. "Politics aside, he's always been good to his word in the past, and that's why in these particular circumstances his word is taken."
Michael Williams agrees. He explains, however, that the question of the exact nature of the NATO units' deployment has been debated more robustly elsewhere in Europe.
"That's exactly, I think, the question that has been the debate in several European capitals," Williams says. "There has always been a bit of blurring, but I think that issue right now is that some European countries are worried about being sucked into the war on terror. But that said, inevitably they're going to have to provide some sort of security, and that might mean fighting insurgents here or there."
Both Williams and Jones conclude that the British troops have enjoyed a good reputation in the region.
But will the British public stay resolute -- and allow U.K. troops to remain -- if they come under heavy attack? Shadow defense minister Mark Harper concludes that he is sure they will.
"Yes, people understand we can't let Afghanistan collapse into a security vacuum that could be filled by the Taliban or by Al-Qaeda or similar groups," Harper says. "The terrorists that bombed London were trained in camps in Afghanistan. So, I think there is a very clear national interest in making sure that the democratically elected Karzai government is successful, and is able to govern the whole of Afghanistan."
Copyright (c) 2006. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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