British troops in Afghanistan are suffering a rise in casualties after Taliban commanders regrouped to attack areas where forces have been reduced, adding urgency to calls for more firepower in the region.
After last month’s successful Panther’s Claw offensive in central Helmand province, insurgents changed tactics and moved north to hit UK bases that were “thinned out” in support of the operation, according to senior officers.
The tactical shift has caused a significant increase in those killed and injured near Sangin, raising questions over the number of troops available to commanders in the field. Four soldiers were killed near the town at the weekend, bringing the total number of British troops killed in Afghanistan to 204.
“It is a question of commanders using the assets at their disposal at the point of main effect,” said Lieutenant General Simon Mayall, the deputy chief of defence staff overseeing operations. “The Taliban are inevitably moving to areas where they are under less pressure.”
Lt Gen Mayall added that he expected Gen Stanley McChrystal, the new US commander in Afghanistan, to “ask for more resources” when his review was published in September, soon after the Afghan presidential elections.
“It is absolutely the best opportunity to create a better outcome for the Afghan people,” he said, reflecting the growing consensus in the UK army that more security forces – either Afghan or international – are required in Helmand.
July was the bloodiest month suffered by UK forces in Afghanistan, with 22 killed and 94 soldiers wounded in action, according to Ministry of Defence figures released on Monday.
A further 13 troops have been killed this month, mostly in the Sangin area. Bob Ainsworth, defence secretary, on Monday insisted the fight against the Taliban was still “winnable”. But he warned that the enemy “are not passive and they are not stupid”.
In a sign of the political debate over Afghanistan, General Sir David Richards, the incoming head of the army, was forced to issue a “clarification” of his widely criticised comments suggesting the UK would be committed to Afghanistan for some 40 years.
Gen Richards said his comments – on development and governance reforms – were taken out of context, adding that “military force along current lines should only be needed for a much shorter period”.
But General Sir Richard Dannatt, the outgoing head of the army, was more specific about the task, predicting the 9,000-strong UK force could remain deployed in significant numbers for up to five years.
“Realistically, one year would be a challenge,” he said. “Two to four years, maybe three to five years, is more like the sort of time that it might well take. But our interests are all about generating the Afghan national security forces as quickly as we can. It’s their country.’’
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