Richard Norton-Taylor and Ian Traynor / The Guardian – 2008-02-07 00:33:48
BRUSSELS (February 6, 2008) — A fresh British force with extra firepower is to be sent to Afghanistan as the US intensifies pressure on other European allies in an increasingly urgent attempt to prevent the country from collapsing into civil war.
In what is being described as a “critical week” for NATO’s role in Afghanistan, the British move, due to be announced today, shows that the government is prepared to maintain a significant military presence there despite severe pressure on its already overstretched army.
All three regular battalions of the Parachute Regiment will provide the backbone of 16 Air Assault Brigade when it takes over from the existing UK infantry brigade based in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, in April, defence officials said. It is believed to be the first time so many paras have been sent on a joint combat mission since the second world war, though the total number of UK troops there will remain at about 7,700.
They will be supplied with extra armoured vehicles and new Merlin helicopters. However, pressure on the army has meant the brigade has had to scavenge troops from other regiments to fill manpower gaps. The Ministry of Defence is also expected to announce that Britain’s 3 Commando Brigade will take over from 16 Air Assault Brigade in six months’ time.
In London today, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, will have talks with David Miliband, the foreign secretary, in what an official called “an important window to step up the international community’s game”. The meeting comes at a time of public clashes between Britain, the US and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, over policy and tactics.
Christopher Langton, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), described this week as “critical” for Nato’s role in Afghanistan. The Rice-Miliband talks also come on the eve of a Nato defence ministers’ meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, which will be dominated by the burgeoning crisis in Afghanistan.
Against a background of transatlantic recrimination over troop contributions and where to deploy them, the Nato meeting is an attempt to reinvigorate policy on Afghanistan by drafting a road map clarifying what Nato is doing there, what it is trying to achieve and how to achieve its aims “within a given timescale”, according to an official at the Vilnius session.
The German government, stung by a letter – leaked to the German press – from Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, complaining that it should send more combat troops to Afghanistan, is coming under even more domestic opposition to what are seen as counter-productive American blandishments. Canada, meanwhile, has threatened to withdraw its troops from Kandahar province next year unless other countries contribute more troops.
However, the Guardian has learned that France may increase its military presence. It is “looking at ways [to] share a greater burden”, an official said yesterday.
Nato officials sought to put a positive spin on the campaign and depict the security failings as a local problem. Despite the transatlantic recriminations about troop numbers, Nato spokesman James Appathurai said the Nato force had gone from about 8,000 to more than 40,000 in two years. “Force generation in Afghanistan has worked,” he said.
But Matt Waldman, Oxfam’s Kabul representative, told the Guardian: “Persistent poverty provides the conditions for insecurity to spread. The urgent priority is to achieve a coherent approach which focuses greater efforts and resources on rural development.”
Attacks from improvised explosive devices and mines have increased by 69% over the past year, according to Nato.
The IISS yesterday said Britain and its Nato allies were in danger of undermining Karzai, who faces elections next year, by cutting their own side-deals with local leaders. It cited the appointment of a former Taliban commander as the mayor of Musa Qala on the recommendation of the British. The US and Afghan governments have criticised UK plans to train and arm community defence forces and attempts to persuade Taliban fighters to change sides.
Karzai recently blocked the appointment of Lord Ashdown, the former Liberal Democrat leader, as a UN envoy with responsibility for coordinating the international effort in Afghanistan.
Dr John Chipman, director general of the IISS, yesterday warned that the tensions between Nato and the Afghan government were surfacing at a time of “worrying fragility” in the alliance’s commitment to the continuing mission in Afghanistan.
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