Three British soldiers dead in a week: the bloody Battle of Kajaki Dam

The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has just seen for himself the scale of Britain’s mission in Afghanistan, where three British soldiers have died in combat with the Taliban in the past week. Yesterday he told The Independent on Sunday: “I don’t pretend that it is an easy task.”

The latest casualty, who has not yet been named, was a member of 14 Signals Regiment. His death in a mortar attack on the compound where he was working in the upper Gereshk Valley on Friday brings British losses in Afghanistan since 2001 to 67, all but five since the beginning of 2006. Two other soldiers were killed in the same area within 24 hours earlier in the week. All were taking part in Operation Chakush (Hammer), which aims to drive back the Taliban in a strategically crucial part of Helmand province, the main theatre of British operations.

Some 29 Nato troops have been killed this month in Afghanistan, with the US and Canada bearing the brunt of the casualties. France, Norway and the Netherlands have also lost soldiers. Away from the battlefield in southern Afghanistan, there has been a spate of suicide bombings and kidnappings, often in areas previously considered relatively safe. Commanders argue that these show the Taliban is being forced to adopt other tactics, because it cannot win in head-on clashes, but there have one or two unsettling developments on the military front as well.

Among last week’s British casualties was the first soldier to be killed while travelling in a Vector, one of the new generation of armoured vehicles intended to replace the unsafe “Snatch” Land Rovers. And a report yesterday said an American C-130 Hercules transport aircraft narrowly avoided being shot down by a surface-to-air missile while flying over Nimroz province, which is bordered on one side by Helmand and on the other by Iran. If the Taliban has managed for the first time to obtain shoulder-launched missiles from Tehran, the danger to Nato forces would increase drastically.

Last week the head of Britain’s armed forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, hinted that more troops might be needed in Afghanistan. As the current force of almost 7,700 spread its influence and “developed more opportunities” across Helmand province, he told the BBC, “I suspect that we will … want to increase our capacity in one or two areas to take advantage of those opportunities.”

Sir Jock and his commanders still contend that the conflict in Afghanistan is “winnable”, the implication being that this is in stark contrast to Iraq, where the military leadership would prefer to draw down forces as soon as possible.

But others question whether sending in more troops will deal with one of the worst problems in Afghanistan – the mounting toll among civilians caught up in military operations, which the Taliban has exploited for propaganda purposes. Christopher Langton, an Afghanistan expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said Nato constantly replied that the enemy killed more civilians. “This brings us down to their level in the minds of the population, which is a mistake when we are trying to claim the moral high ground,” he warned.

There are many disagreements among the 36 countries seeking to stabilise Afghanistan, from the refusal of many Nato members to send their troops into combat to sharp differences over tackling the drugs trade, but there is near unanimity on one point: even Britain’s defence chiefs agree that the solution does not lie in fighting. Mr Miliband said: “The military effort is vitally important, but it cannot work on its own – it must go hand in hand with economic and social development.”

Barnett Rubin, a leading US expert on Afghanistan, went further, telling the IoS: “Conceiving of the effort in Afghanistan as a ‘war’ is a major error and the source of many problems … Military means will play a part, but not the main part, in any effort to stabilise Afghanistan and assure security to both its people and the international community.”

The non-military side of the equation is equally beset with problems, however. The huge growth in opium production, particularly in Helmand, has helped to finance the insurgency and promoted corruption, further undermining the credibility of Hamid Karzai’s government, which has barely any control outside Kabul.

After the disastrous impression created by the former defence secretary, John Reid, who hoped UK troops could complete three years in Helmand “without firing a shot”, the Government has been at pains to emphasise that the Afghan mission will be long and difficult. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the diplomat recently chosen to head a beefed-up British presence in Kabul, spoke of the task lasting a generation.

The new Foreign Secretary is promoting the same message. While pointing to successes such as five million children, more than a third of them girls, in school compared with 400,000 in 2001, and that 80 per cent of Afghans now have access to basic healthcare, against 9 per cent five years ago, he agreed opium cultivation, particularly in Helmand, and corruption were big problems. “Achieving our aims is a long-term task,” he added, but it had to be done for the sake of Britain and the international community as well as the Afghans.

The commitment of many other countries may not be as great, however. As negotiations drag on over the fate of 22 kidnapped South Korean Christian Aid volunteers, 18 of them women, whose leader has already been killed by the Taliban, the country has already said it will probably pull out its small force later this year. Colonel Langton fears that Britain risks being caught between the “war weariness” of European countries “who feel they have been in Afghanistan a long time”, and America’s inclination to use force in pursuit of quick solutions.

The US is pushing hard to destroy the opium crop by aerial spraying, despite warnings that unless farmers are given some other way of making a living, nothing will create greater hostility to the foreign presence. “The policy of eradication consists of attacking the weakest and poorest first, and Afghans see it, even if we don’t,” said Dr Rubin of New York University. And American officials have reacted to the serious problem of fighters infiltrating from neighbouring Pakistan by hinting at cross-border strikes at their havens in the tribal areas, causing outrage in Islamabad.

Pakistan’s attempts to use force against Taliban and al-Qa’ida influence in its tribal areas have been disastrous, resulting not only in heavy losses of its soldiers but also in greater militancy of the kind that led to the siege at the Red Mosque in the heart of the capital. Mr Miliband, who added Pakistan to his itinerary, was seen by his hosts as sympathising with their dilemma: he saw the need for political negotiations, according to Pakistani officials, thereby distancing himself from American sabre-rattling.

But as with all the Brown Government’s other perceived differences with the Bush administration, this may have little practical effect. The Foreign Secretary himself pointed out: “We saw in Afghanistan that American aid is more than the rest of the world combined, and the American military is more than the rest of the world combined. So if you want to do good, you’ve got to do it with them.”

But when two such close allies appear to have such different ideas about what constitutes “doing good” in Afghanistan, critics will ask whether there is any coherent strategy. As Sir Jock Stirrup admitted last week, while the campaign in Helmand province had “come an enormously long way”, compared to where Afghanistan needed to get, “it looks as if we’ve come hardly any further viewing: Helmand: The Soldier’s Story opens Friday at the National Army Museum, Chelsea, free distance”.