• Country is at tipping point, Nato commander warns
Hard-pressed British soldiers in southern Afghanistan will be reinforced by thousands of American troops early next year, under plans being drawn up by Nato and US commanders. Alarmed by a Taliban resurgence, Washington plans to send 10,000 troops to Helmand province, a force large enough to outnumber the 8,000-strong British contingent which has been struggling to keep the enemy at bay.
A further 10,000 American troops will be deployed elsewhere in southern and south-western Afghanistan, according to senior Pentagon officials. Commanders refer to the plan as a long-term troop “uplift”, as opposed to a short-term “surge”, such as that in Iraq last year.
British forces in southern Afghanistan are locked in a stalemate with Taliban insurgents, General David McKiernan, commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan said in Kabul yesterday. The insurgents were not winning, but the country was at a “tipping point”, he said.
He added: “2009 is going to be a critical year for this campaign. It’s elections here and a new administration in the US. It is a chance for the international community to stay committed and a window of opportunity to increase contributions.”
The US is transferring thousands of troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. British military chiefs say pressure on UK armed forces means they will not be able to send the 4,000 British troops due to leave Basra by June next year to southern Afghanistan. However, they will come under strong pressure from the new Obama administration in Washington to reinforce Britain’s military presence in Helmand.
Military planners in London are drawing up contingency plans to deploy perhaps a battle group of 1,500 soldiers there - but only for a limited period around the Afghan presidential election in September next year. However, scores of SAS special forces are expected to be transferred early next year from Iraq, where they have been engaged in operations against insurgency leaders. They would reinforce US Special Boat Service soldiers who have targeted Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.
US commanders have said they would like to almost double the number of American troops in Afghanistan, an increase from about 32,000 to 60,000. Most of the extra 20,000 already committed will be deployed in Helmand and neighbouring Kandahar province.
The first US reinforcements of 3,500 marines will be deployed through southern Afghanistan, followed early next year by deployments south of Kabul and on the northern fringes of Helmand. Later in the year more US troops will be deployed in the thinly populated areas of southern Helmand, close to the Pakistan border. Others will spread out east into Kandahar province, where Canadian troops have been based, the Guardian has learned.
British troops, meanwhile, will continue to be responsible for the more heavily populated areas of middle Helmand, sometimes referred to as the “central Helmand belt”. US troops would provide a kind of “wrap” around British troops, a Nato military source said yesterday.
If US commanders had their way, another 10,000 or so American troops would be deployed to eastern Afghanistan to concentrate on fighting Taliban and al-Qaida supporters crossing the border from the tribal areas of north-west Pakistan where they have been congregating.
British commanders say Taliban raids have been disrupted by the killing - often by special forces - of their leaders. That has led them to resort more to improvised roadside bombs, which damage the Taliban cause by sometimes killing civilians.
Defence officials recognise that UK troops are too thin on the ground to mount military operations to control Helmand’s rural hinterland. They compare the task to squashing balloons or squeezing jelly - meaning that as Taliban groups are forced out of one area, they move into another one. The idea is that US reinforcements will squeeze them out altogether.
More effective and longer lasting military activity is needed in the next year, Nato commanders say. Only then will civil agencies and economic and political progress, combined with a bigger, trained Afghan national army, come into their own, putting the Afghan government in a strong enough position to pursue effective negotiations with the Taliban.
December 2008 An extra 3,500 US marines deployed in southern Afghanistan
January 2009 3,500 US troops deployed south of Kabul. 1,500 deployed elsewhere in southern Afghanistan
During 2009 Up to 10,000 US troops deployed in Helmand province, the bulk in the south and south-west close to the Pakistan border
Autumn 2009 An extra 1,500 British troops deployed to Helmand province during the Afghan presidential election campaign
Late 2009/early 2010 An extra 10,000 US troops deployed to eastern Afghanistan to control border with Pakistan.