Michael Evans and Timothy Albone – Timesonline September 8, 2006
More troops, more helicopters, more transport aircraft: the shopping list of reinforcements for the increasingly beleaguered Nato mission in Afghanistan was spelt out yesterday by the alliance’s top military commander.
After a visit to Kabul to be briefed on Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) campaign, General James Jones, the American Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, took the unusual step of voicing in public his dismay that the 26-nation alliance had failed to provide the troops and equipment needed for such a dangerous mission.
Urging Nato members to come forward with reinforcements, General Jones said the next few weeks could be decisive in the fight against the insurgents. “We could do with more of anything we can get,” one senior Nato official said.
Military sources in Kabul said that Nato commanders were hamstrung because there were not enough combat troops, and no flexibility to allow Lieutenant-General David Richards, the British head of Isaf, to form a mobile reserve force that could be flown into any troublespot. In previous campaigns, such as Kosovo, a reserve force was available.
Even as General Jones expressed his concerns, General Richards was preparing to redeploy units based in the north and west of Afghanistan to help the Canadian troops in Kandahar in the south. The Canadians have been engaged in the toughest battle with the Taleban since Nato took over responsibility for southern Afghanistan on August 1, and their casualty toll is rising alarmingly, with five killed in the past week. The British, too, have been suffering high casualties, with 19 killed in six days.
The dangers were described by Brigadier Ed Butler, commander of the British force in Afghanistan last night. He told ITV News that British troops had used at least 400,000 rounds of ammunition. “The fighting is extraordinarily intense. The intensity and ferocity of the fighting is far greater than in Iraq on a daily basis,” he said, adding that the battles were “close and personal and hand to hand”.
“We could always do with more forces to generate a higher-tempo operation and we could get things done quicker,” he said.
Brigadier Butler also said that 12 British soldiers had been caught in a minefield in northern Helmand. One was killed and five seriously injured. The soldier who died had run through the minefield to call for air support “in an act of exceptional bravery”. He was named by the MoD as Corporal Mark Wright, 27, from Edinburgh, serving with the 3rd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment.
At present there are about 20,000 Nato and affiliated troops from 37 countries, of whom about half are in southern Afghanistan. General Jones told a news conference that the alliance had been surprised by the extent of the fighting in the south and more troops were needed. The military sources in Kabul said that General Jones, who served with the US Marine Corps, had in mind another battlegroup of about 1,000 troops, backed with helicopters and full logistical support which could be used at will whenever Isaf units required reinforcement.
Speaking at Nato’s European military headquarters at Mons in Belgium, General Jones said he would be raising the issue of more troops and air assets with alliance chiefs of staff in Warsaw today and tomorrow.
He said he was confident that the meeting would produce more helicopters, transport aircraft and several hundred “flexible” reserve troops.
Although the British troops, particularly those in the outposts in northern Helmand, have been under attack almost daily, the most immediate area of concern is in Kandahar, where the Canadian-led troops have been engaged in Operation Medusa.
More than 200 Taleban are supposed to have been killed in the Panjwayi district — another 21 died yesterday — but despite firepower superiority, the Nato troops have faced ferocious opposition. The precarious security situation was in evidence again yesterday when Taleban rebels in southern Helmand province took control of the town of Garmser for the second time in two months.
Although Britain has about 4,000 troops in Helmand, the province is four times the size of Wales, and southern Helmand, has no British presence.
There is no indication that either Britain or Canada will be asked to send more troops.
“The British [commitment] is the most potent by a very long way; the UK is certainly doing its bit,” Colonel Chris Vernon, Chief of Staff for Nato troops in southern Afghanistan, said.
Whether nations such as Germany and Spain will send troops into Helmand and Kandahar remains to be seen. They have so far been unwilling to put their troops into the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. Currently they operate only in the relatively safe northern and western regions.
Last updated 09/09/2006