Why British minister calls Afghan military mission ‘noble’ (News Analysis)

June 9th, 2008 - 7:09 pm ICT by IANS  

By Dipankar De Sarkar
London, June 9 (IANS) Britain’s defence minister Monday called the bid to snuff out extremist Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan a “noble cause” as the death of three more British paratroopers in the embattled country took the toll since 2001 to 100. “Afghanistan is the noble cause of the 21st century and I passionately believe that,” Defence Secretary Des Brown said.

The three soldiers from the Parachute Regiment were on a foot patrol close to their Forward Operating Base in the Upper Sangin Valley Sunday when their patrol was attacked by a suicide bomber with explosives strapped to his chest.

“We are making significant progress in Afghanistan. It’s small … but we are making progress,” Brown said, adding British troops had “created in the most of difficult of circumstances” a degree of security that would have seemed impossible some years ago.

Brown spoke after the chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, said: “One hundred brave and professional servicemen have now died in Afghanistan … I only hope that the terrible hardship that they have been asked to bear can be eased by the certainty that our forces are engaged in a most noble endeavour.”

Both Brown and Stirrup gave out statistics to claim progress: between 6 and 7 million Afghan children were now in school; 80 percent of the population had access to medical care; and the rule of law had been established in parts of the country which were once lawless.

Brown said thousands of kilometres of road had been laid in a country where the danger was that “where the roads end the Taliban start”.

But six years after NATO forces overthrew the Taliban regime in the aftermath of 9/11, news of the deaths revived a controversy on the British military presence in Afghanistan.

There are nearly 8,000 British soldiers in Afganistan, concentrated in the difficult Helmand province in the south of the country. They are part of the NATO’s 53,000-strong International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF).

The purpose of the mission is to stabilise the Hamid Karzai government and to neutralise the ability of extremists to target the West from bases in Afghanistan, as they did with attacks on the US in September 2001.

Analysts say the British approach points to a long-term presence, with results that are harder to detect immediately on the ground.

The British army works in tandem with the foreign office and the international development ministry, channelling aid money through the Afghan government - unlike the Americans who give cash to their military commanders to spend on projects.

At the same time British troops in Helmand have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting since the 1982 Falklands war, leading some commentators to complain that the British have taken a far bigger hit in Afghanistan than many of their NATO allies.

“While British forces have succeeded in destroying the Taliban’s fighting capability, they have also paid a heavy price in terms of dead and injured,” the Daily Telegraph said in a comment published Monday.

The combination of the two factors - slow progress and mounting casualties - means the government has to continually try and convince the British public, many among whom are sceptical, about the necessity of the Afghan mission.

“If the British people think there is a point to the current operations in Afghanistan, then the figure of 100 deaths - although a tragic milestone - is sustainable. However, if they do not, and view the losses as pointless or avoidable, then even a single death is one too many,” said Michael Clarke, head of the Royal United Services Institute, a strategic thinktank.

The Stop the War Coalition, which came into prominence in the aftermath of the Iraq war, describes the conflict as a “war without purpose”, waged to support American foreign policy. It says the presence of British troops is “completely unnecessary” and warns of Afghanistan turning into an Iraq-like quagmire.

The shadow of Iraq is ever-present: a senior British officer and Afghanistan veteran, Brig. Ed Butler, resigned from the army last week amid speculation that he was unhappy with the level of resources committed to the British troops.

Butler claimed in 2006 that British forces could have helped secure Afghanistan much sooner if resources had not been diverted to Iraq in order to topple the Saddam Hussein regime.

At a time of increasing competition for resources, the fact that the British government has spent some 2 billion pounds on its Afghan mission is a sticking point for some in Britain.

Minister Des Brown described the conflict as a “battle for the people rather than battle against the insurgencies”, adding: “There is evidence of progress that doesn’t always get the coverage it deserves.”

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