Afghans, Brits wait for US forces in Helmand


From the Taleban to Afghan families and British soldiers sweltering in the heat, everyone in this part of Helmand is waiting for the Americans.

In six weeks, they will arrive in such numbers and force that a long stalemate that has bogged down the British Army in this part of southern Afghanistan could be broken.

Whatever the outcome, the Americans’ arrival will change the nature of the conflict radically in this part of the country.

The British, in their modest numbers, can patrol only within reach of their bases to avoid the risk of being cut off, and the newly rotated British soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment, bedding down in their makeshift fortress homes in the southernmost outposts of Helmand, know that they will soon be pulling out.

In small patrol bases, such as Hassan Abad, they face some of the toughest living conditions for British soldiers anywhere in the world. They sleep in 12-man tents, cope with primitive outdoor washing facilities and eat boil-in-the-bag rations. Inside the base floors are covered in large pebbles to try to keep the dust at bay. The temperatures — near 40C (104F) — are intense and the malarial mosquitos help to make life on the front line a challenge.

Patrolling in these conditions, wearing heavy body armour and carrying machineguns, radios, batteries and ammunition, is hard enough without having to worry about the Taleban.

“We have no desire to fight the Taleban, but to fix them, pushing slightly farther south, but if we were to go all the way we’d be guaranteed a fight,” said Major Stuart Hill, who commands B Company 2 Mercian.

“In some ways they don’t have the desire to fight us. Are they preparing for the US to come in? I think they’re consolidating their defences,” he said.

The Americans will present a very different proposition for the Taleban. Thousands of infantrymen and armoured vehicles will arrive soon, backed by the kind of heavy weaponry and aerial firepower that blew the Taleban out of Afghanistan in 2001.

The insurgents had a reminder of what they can expect last year. In March, after British troops had come under withering attack from the Taleban in and around Garmsir, 3,000 marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit mounted a full-scale attack in the area.

They killed 400 Taleban fighters and destroyed Jugroom Fort, a Taleban stronghold eight miles south of Garmsir district centre. Today it lies in ruins and the Taleban have moved farther south....

Since that American intervention in Garmsir, the British operation has been one of containment, holding a line against the Taleban and preventing them from infiltrating the area.

The British effort is a classic case of an inadequate force to space ratio in a counterinsurgency operation. The enemy is not strong enough to defeat them, but there is not sufficient force to deny the enemy space to operate. That is what the US forces will do. The failure to have enough troops makes these operations last much longer and also makes them more bloody. I think it was also a mistake for Obama not to give the US the full number of troops requested by commanders.


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