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Published on Saturday, July 8, 2006 by the Guardian/UK
UK Has Boosted Taliban, Admits Defense Chief
Minister says Afghan mission will be 'very, very difficult and dangerous
by Patrick Wintour and Declan Walsh in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan
Des Browne, the defense secretary, conceded yesterday that the deployment of 3,300 British forces into the Taliban heartland of southern Helmand has "energized" the Taliban.
His somber assessment came after a week in which a sixth British soldier was killed in the province, and as he prepares to announce next week the dispatch of reinforcements to the country, including extra air cover and engineers.
Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Tootal, the officer in charge of British troops in the region, also admitted the resistance was proving unexpectedly tough. He said: "If we were honest, we didn't expect it to be quite so intense. But at the same time, we have trained for it. "
In an interview with the Guardian, Mr Browne said: "It is certainly the case that the very act of deployment into the south has energized opposition, and the scale of that opposition and the nature of that opposition became apparent when we were deploying". But he insisted the attacks on British troops were foreseen, and the original package had been an impressive fighting force, including artillery, Apache helicopters and paratroopers.
In the first sign of a crack in the effective all-party consensus on the Afghan deployment, the former defense minister Doug Henderson called for British troops to be confined to barracks until the purpose of the mission was clarified.
He told GMTV: "I think until a political strategy has been worked out and agreed ... then in some senses there should be a withdrawal of British troops to barracks". He claimed troops did not know what they were doing or for how long.
But in an interview with the Guardian, Mr Browne warned: "Some opposition politicians cannot resist the temptation to exploit an alleged confusion for short-term gains, but they put at risk our troops on the ground. If the message of confusion, or suggestion that in fact we are there to do something entirely different as a primary purpose, is played back by the Taliban into local communities, and then they think the British troops are coming to starve them or attack them, then that is putting our soldiers at a level of unnecessary risk".
"The objective is clear. It is to let the writ of the Afghan government run in the south, against a background that these provinces have been largely lawless for three decades, leaving the Taliban, drug warlords and militia to act with impunity and brutalize local communities ...
"We have always explained this was going to be very, very difficult and dangerous, and we have also explained that the purpose was to create the security space for reconstruction of the country. People who criticize us have to ask themselves whether they want us to do it at all. There is overwhelming support internationally for this mission. We are doing this not just to secure Afghanistan ... but also to deny that space for al-Qaida to deliver violence back to our communities."
Colonel Tootal denied that troops had been deployed prematurely into remote areas. "We are taking the campaign into the backyard of the Taliban. We are having an effect just by being there. We show support for the government, guarantee security and will be hopefully be at the leading edge of development.
"We came here not wanting to take casualties, but were prepared for the fact that they were likely. That does not mean to say it's not tragic when you lose a soldier, but its part of the business we are in."
Copyright Â© 2006 Guardian Newspapers Limited