On Monday evening I turned on the tv to see the beginning of a report on the work of a platoon of our troops in Afghanistan. I was not planning to watch it all, but I became gripped by it.
It was a simple long statement of what it must be like to serve for several months on the front line against the Taliban. The Lieutenant in charge came over as thoughtful, very concerned for his troops, and well aware of the big responsibility that rested on his shoulders. The soldiers came over as brave and long suffering, prepared to carry out orders to the best of their ability and well aware of the dangers they were placed in. They were, as MPs never fail to say, a credit to our nation, brave and conscious of their duty.
The officer in charge was allowed to put some of his thoughts about the campaign, the strategy and the problems of managing his troops to camera. He did so loyally, without sounding too critical of the high command nor seeking pity for the violence they faced. His testimony, however, raised serious questions about the mission and the tactics being followed.
Their main task was to keep open a tarmac highway as a major route between cities, suitable for commerce. When the British platoon took over from the Americans, they decided they needed to undertake foot patrols to demonstrate to the Taliban that they could control the ground. They soon discovered they were vulnerable to casualties from snipers as well as from IEDs, and opted to carry out most of their work from heavily armoured vehicles on the highway. They did not and could not police the ground as they wished.
They were then instructed to engage the enemy by luring the Taliban forces into firing at them so they could return fire. They did this though they had understandable reservations. The instructions do not allow them to fire first on the enemy. This is a precaution, as the enemy does not wear a uniform or other easily identifying mark, and blends into the local terrain and local communities in ways which make attacking them hazardous. Trying this led them to trigger ieds with hidden trip wires. They decided not to undertake these tactics again owing to the risk of loss of life.
We then saw a “routine” operation seeking to clear ieds from near the highway, with soldiers on foot doing this under cover from the men remaining in the heavily armed vehicle on the highway. This led to another casualty. Soldiers moving out from a vehicle needing to sweep every piece of land to check for explosives before they step on it are highly visible and vulnerable to concealed enemies and to concealed bombs.
Finally we learned that locals were blown up by an ied just off the highway, when UK troops closed the road temporarily to check its safety. A local group decided to ignore the instructions and drive on the land close to the road. This led to improved relations with local villagers who blamed the Taliban for the deaths, and made it a bit easier to police the area. The Lieutenant privately mused on how these deaths had happened owing to the presence of foreign troops to try to keep the road safe but making it a target for Taliban ieds.
The Lieutenant’s questions were worrying, and need to be addressed by those issuing the orders. How feasible is it to patrol areas close to Taliban territory? Is it wise to draw the Taliban into a fight when our troops are not allowed to initiate firing or get ahead of the enemy in action? Can you fight against an enemy which is embedded into local communities you are trying to protect? How can you succeed in a hearts and minds campaign in the villages when most overseas soldiers do not speak the local language, and when you are outnumbered by the Taliban? Can the presence of foreign troops become an incitement to more violence by the Taliban?
The US and UK high commands have announced the departure of troops in 2014. The Afghans have by n ow had many years to train their own police and soldiers. Isn’t it high time we put our troops back into relatively safe bases, using them just as advisers? Isn’t it time to bring most of them home? Why should we risk more lives in these difficult conditions, now our departure has been announced?