When British troops left for Afghanistan, the then Labour Defence Secretary John Reid, suggested they might soon return without a shot being fired. Two years on and two million rounds of ammunition later and the present Defence Secretary, Des Browne, has spoken of a ‘long-term commitment’ of anything from 10 to 30 years, claiming the Labour government ‘never underestimated the degree of difficulty we face’. The number of British troops in Helmand is set to rise to 7,700 this autumn.

As in Iraq, differences are emerging between the British and US forces. British commanders have asked that US special forces be removed from their area because the number of civilian casualties is damaging their so-called ‘hearts and minds’ campaign. A senior British officer stated that the US caused ‘the lion’s share’ of the more than 300 Afghan civilian casualties so far this year. The new NATO commander in Afghanistan, US General Dan McNeil, has aborted agreements made by British forces with local leaders in Helmand Province.

There are differences too over the Afghan poppy crop. This year is expected to see another record harvest. There was a 17% increase in land under poppy cultivation and output has doubled in two years. Half of it comes from Helmand. Afghanistan accounts for 92% of the world’s opium production. Former NATO commander US General James Jones claimed that ‘heroin is the crux of the problem...[it] funds the insurgency and corruption’. The US wants a much more vigorous crop eradication programme, but the British claim such heavy-handedness would turn more Afghan farmers, who rely on the poppy crop for their survival, against the occupying forces.

NATO countries, other than the US and Britain are still refusing to increase their combat troop commitment to the forces in Afghanistan. A NATO rapid response force, which was proposed by former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, has also failed to reach its full operational capacity of 25,000 because members are reluctant to commit troops. The situation is set to worsen in the next six to 12 months as present troop commitments come to an end.

Jim Craven

FRFI 199 October / November 2007