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    South Asia
     Jun 20, 2006
Once more up the Khyber
By Ronan Thomas

It is an old story and long part of British military and literary memory. British forces are again taking casualties in Afghan scrubland while hunting a formidable adversary.

As Britain steadily increases its commitment to counter-insurgency operations in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, it is losing soldiers. On June 11, 29-year-old Captain Jim Philippson was killed saving a wounded colleague outside the village of Sangeen. Several Taliban insurgents were also killed.

Last week, reports suggested 21 Taliban fighters died in clashes with Britain's elite Parachute Regiment at Nauzad, 64 kilometers north of the British army's main Helmand base, Camp Bastion.

Since April, isolated landmine explosions have injured several



British soldiers, but up to now US, Afghan National Army (ANA) and Canadian troops have borne the brunt of regional attacks.

This is now changing. As Britain ramps up its commitment to Afghanistan - extant since 2001 - a new chapter in the international "war on terror" is unfolding. Not yet a major international news story, it soon will be.

Mandated for trouble
As the security baton is passed from the US to an 8,000-strong North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) force - with United Kingdom, Dutch and Canadian forces prominent - a spearhead of about 3,300 British troops is making its own Afghan "footprint", military parlance for aggressive disruption of Taliban and al-Qaeda-linked forces.

In turn, Taliban insurgents and foreign fighters have promised retribution on Her Majesty's forces to rival anything experienced by the US Army thus far. Last month, Mohammad Hanif Sherzad, spokesman for Taliban leader Mullah Omar, claimed, "We will turn Afghanistan into a river of blood for the British." Other insurgent leaders point to their ancestors' record of killing British soldiers in the 19th and early 20th centuries: a gift from God for their own generation.

Britain's three-year, US$1 billion mandate centers on security provision for Helmand's civil reconstruction in the face of Taliban attacks. From Camp Bastion, a rough and ready redoubt surrounded by razor wire and concrete walls, British soldiers face formidable challenges.

Supported by Royal Air Force (RAF) Harrier jets and US-built Apache helicopters operating from the coalition air base at Kandahar - an additional 130 British airfield defense and logistics troops will arrive there in coming weeks - British soldiers are experiencing the dangers of all armies operating in Afghanistan.

In summer heat of more than 50 degrees Celsius they face a committed enemy using traditional Afghan insurgent tactics. With Taliban fighters descending from surrounding hills to resupply and engage the coalition, the British are encountering an enemy often indistinguishable from the local population.

A pattern is already forming. The British deploy light armor to repel attacks and clear villages. The insurgents retreat to the hills, but return once the British have left.

Comparisons are now being made to the British army of the Victorian age. Then the army had to decide on so-called "butcher and bolt" versus "forward policy" operations. The first spoke for itself. The second was strategic, aiming at British control of the Afghan/Pakistan border regions to provide defense in depth.

A second remit for the British, equally problematic, is to win hearts and minds in the Afghan population through reconstruction, while managing prickly relations with local opium-poppy producers. British military commanders and civil officials are attempting to wean local producers off poppy cultivation toward alternative crops: a seemingly impossible and perilous task.

Powerful local vested interests control the poppy industry. Drug profits of up to $1 billion per year directly support the local economy and infuse the insurgency. About 20% of global opium production takes place in Helmand and 50% of Afghanistan's total poppy production originates in that province. Of the heroin sold in Britain, 90% comes from Afghanistan.

But in fact these challenges are nothing new in the shared history of the United Kingdom, Afghanistan and the regions bordering Pakistan. Britain has left footprints in these areas before.

On the North-West Frontier
British involvement in Afghanistan is a long and bloody story, both heroic and disastrous. Embroiled in 19th-century imperial commitments against local rulers and border tribesman on the so-called North-West Frontier of India, the British fought a series of vicious conflicts. Their experience carries the same mix of ambush, defeat and punitive retribution that characterized the Roman Empire's engagement with Germanic tribes on its northern borders.

Afghanistan's pivotal position emerged with the 19th century's "Great Game" between the British and Russian empires, with the jewel of British India and warm-water ports in Turkey as ultimate prizes. The British were rightly concerned that India could be reached through Afghanistan by Russian forces or their Afghan tribal proxies.

By the 1830s, the Russians were advancing rapidly through Central Asia. British foreign and military policy was predicated on defending the North-West Frontier and the capital Kabul at all costs. With a hornets' nest of tribal interests competing for Russian and British interest - with Amir Dost Mohammed a key figure - and unfavorable geography to say the least, the omens were not good.

So it proved as, in a series of notorious mid-19th-century Afghan wars, the British army suffered appalling losses. In the First Afghan War (1839-42) a retreating British and Indian army of 4,500 men was ambushed and wiped out in January 1842 by Afghan tribesmen some 50km from Jalalabad. In response to the shambles, the British marched a relief column through the Khyber Pass to Kabul to gain victory. But a pattern of mutually destructive asymmetric warfare had been set.

A Second Afghan War of 1878-81 was sparked by Britain's attempt to forestall Russian overtures to rival Afghan amirs, and the murder of British diplomats (a common feature in Britain's Afghan entanglements in the 19th century). In London, the popular anti-Russian song blared out from a thousand music halls: "We've fought the bear before, and whilst we're Britons true, the Russian bear shall not have Constantinople."

A British force of 35,000 men was led by Major-General Frederick Roberts (known to his soldiers simply as "Bobs"), whose exemplary military record was tempered by his propensity to hang insurgents and civilians alike by the roadside. After a stunning Afghan victory by rival Ayub Khan at Maiwand (1880) and Roberts' punitive response, Britain eventually sought accommodation with local tribes, endorsing Abdurrahman Khan as amir of Kabul. The British then made a tactical withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1881.

In the following years the British took part in several further campaigns in the North-West Frontier provinces of Waziristan (now part of Pakistan) in 1894-95, Chitral (1895) and Tirah (1897-98). A young Winston Churchill served in the Tirah campaign as a military correspondent, recorded in his books My Early Life and The Story of the Malakand Field Force. He examined the British military strategic choices on the frontier of "butcher and bolt" versus "forward policy". He came down firmly on the side of forward policy.

By 1893, Afghanistan and British India were formally separated under the Durand Line proposals and the British pursued a policy of "pacification" (they paid off troublesome tribal warlords). Like Roman legates watching the forests of Germania, British foreign-policy makers recognized the limits of imperial rule.

In 1919, a Third Afghan War, launched after Amir Amanullah declared war on British interests, was won by British forces after their devastating military response. After three months of aerial bombardment and a land campaign through the Khyber Pass, the British concluded the Treaty of Rawalpindi, recognizing Afghan independence.

Britain's military actions in Afghanistan and along the North-West Frontier continued on into the 20th century. From 1919 to 1925, the RAF bombed Mahsud tribesmen in Waziristan and flew air sorties over the North-West Frontier regions from 1928-39.

The story is not over. This week, Britain's casualties confirm tragically that its 21st-century commitment to Afghanistan and those of its NATO allies will not be without new cost.

And the power of history to inform persists in Afghanistan.

Rudyard Kipling's 1886 poem "Arithmetic on the Frontier", seen by some as a cliche from overuse, was nevertheless given renewed power last week by the latest British casualties.

A scrimmage in a border station,
A canter down some dark defile,
Two thousand pounds of education,
Drops to a ten-rupee jezail.


Granted the jezail - the Pashtu musket of legend - has been replaced by Taliban Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, and the RAF Bulldog and Gladiator biplanes of the 1920s and 1930s have been replaced by Harriers and Apaches. Yet the historical resonances are inescapable as the descendants of past conflicts re-engage each other.

Today, the choices - "butcher and bolt" or "forward policy" - remain as relevant to British military commanders today as they were more than 100 years ago. Indeed, senior British officers today have a feast of imperial literature to choose from, ranging from Churchill's classics and 1980s Soviet military reports to Report on Waziristan and its Tribes (1901).

Ultimately, British success or failure in Helmand will be constrained by resources, particularly the number of troops available on the ground. A deepening commitment is inevitable, as 3,000 troops do not go far in Afghanistan.

Strategic success in Afghanistan has often been envisaged by outside powers - by British, Soviet and now coalition forces - but rarely if ever achieved. In 2006, the key lies in a truly secure border with Pakistan.

That will not happen any time soon. If NATO, led by the British in Helmand, can succeed in the south, their effective security commitment to northeastern Afghanistan - in place of or in support of US forces - will also be necessary for years to come. And Pakistan's northwestern border areas will remain a filter for insurgents - notably Waziristan - world famous for Pashtu resistance to occupying foreign forces, particularly the British.

The record of foreign powers intervening in Afghanistan has always been one of profound risk. Yet the alternative to intervention is an Afghanistan declining further into a center for international terrorism. For Britain's highly professional modern army, with more experience than most in counter-insurgency, matching the lessons from Afghanistan's past and the requirements of the present are now being tested.

Ronan Thomas is a British correspondent.

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Taliban's call for jihad answered in Pakistan (Jun 16, '06)

Taliban take the fight to the country (Jun 9, '06)

The day that changed Afghanistan (Jun 3, '06)

 
 



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