THOUSANDS of British troops could still be in Afghanistan battling the Taleban in 20 years’ time, the future commander of UK forces in the country has said.
Brigadier Andrew Mackay, the head of the Scottish-based 52 Infantry Brigade, made the grim admission in an exclusive interview with The Scotsman before flying out to the war-torn Helmand province to assume command of more than 7,000 British soldiers.
Britain is spearheading NATO’s international security assistance force in Afghanistan, which aims to support the democratic Afghan government against a resurgent Taleban militia.
Originally conceived as a low-key reconstruction mission, British troops now find themselves regularly involved in bloody close-quarters fighting which some commanders say is the heaviest UK forces have faced since the Korean War.
The British mission in Afghanistan is formally due to end in 2009, but the ferocity of the resistance and the fragility of Afghan democracy mean UK forces could still be on the ground in large numbers in two decades’ time, Brig Mackay said.
Britain’s frontline troops in Afghanistan are being killed at such a rate that, were it to continue, one in 36 would not survive a six-month tour of the country.
In Iraq, as many as one in 100 of all service personnel could die during a six-month stint if the death rate there continues as it has in the past month.
The Ministry of Defence confirmed that a serviceman from the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment was killed on Saturday during an attack on a patrol base in Helmand province. His death brings to seven the number of British troops in Afghanistan killed in action or from wounds sustained in battle since July 12. This is compared with a monthly average of 0.7 since the conflict began in November 2001. All seven fatalities were members of a 1,500-strong frontline force primarily charged with fighting the Taleban.
If the death toll continued at this rate, 42 battle-group personnel would be killed in the next six months and a frontline soldier embarking on a typical tour of duty in the country would stand a one in 36 chance of being killed
Britain’s frontline forces are facing a manning shortfall which exceeds the total number of troops deployed to Afghanistan, an influential House of Commons watchdog body warned today.
The Public Accounts Committee said the armed services were currently 5850 men and women short of full strength, and that the damage of repeated tours of duty to family life had reached crisis point for many.
There are 5700 service personnel in Afghanistan, where they endure daily attacks from Taliban insurgents. Two were killed at the weekend, bringing the number who have died there since 2001 to 63.
The committee’s report on recruitment and retention said bluntly that there were too few soldiers, sailors and airmen to meet the demands of simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Frequent overseas deployments, heavier workloads and the problem of balancing service and family life were among the main reasons for a leaving rate which had hit a 10-year peak.
The majority of Army officers have considered resigning because of continuous operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, a Ministry of Defence survey has admitted.
Two-thirds of officers and 40 per cent of other ranks questioned said constant operations had fuelled their intention to quit the Army.
With six-month long tours, which require at least six months hard training beforehand, little time is left for troops to spend with their families. There are 14,000 troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The costs of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have risen by 42% and 16% respectively since November, the Defence Select Committee said.
The bill for the Afghanistan campaign in 2006-7 is now expected to be £770 million, compared to £540 million in the Government’s Winter Supplementary Estimates.
The UK taxpayer is due to spend £1.2 billion over the same period in Iraq, up from £860 million.
The report found that some of the extra costs were due to expenses such as the new operational bonus for troops, which have been included in the figures for the first time.
However, even taking those extras into account, the forecast costs have risen by more than 10% for Iraq and almost a third for Afghanistan, according to the MPs.
The Taliban is gearing up for a massive summer offensive, with more than 2,000 suicide bombers ready for action and even more preparing, a senior commander said on Saturday.
The warning comes a day after a top U.S. diplomat warned Afghanistan was in for a bloody and dangerous spring after the bloodiest year since the hardline Islamist Taliban was ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001.
“The Taliban will intensify their guerrilla and suicide strikes this summer,” Mulla Hayat Khan told Reuters from a secret location. “This will be a bloodiest year for foreign troops.”
A Taleban commander has claimed that the former Afghan rulers are planning to target Westerners in Britain and the rest of Europe for waging war against them in Afghanistan.
Mullah Muhammad Amin, a former official in the Taleban Government before it was overthrown by the US-led coalition in 2001, told Sky News that the Taleban had been inspired by extremists in Iraq and now wanted to export terror to the West.
He said that they had large stockpiles of weapons and that fighters hiding in Pakistan were being helped by people sympathetic to their cause.