U.S. “surge” could prop up allies in Afghan south
Tue Nov 25, 2008
By Jon Hemming
KABUL (Reuters) – British, Canadian and Dutch troops are doing their best to fight the Taliban in southern Afghanistan with limited resources, but with progress slow, the United States is considering a surge of its own firepower to tip the balance.
The decision whether to send more than 20,000 extra U.S. troops to Afghanistan to safeguard presidential polls next year is likely to be one of the first faced by President-elect Barack Obama when he becomes commander-in-chief in January.
“The main problem is that there aren’t enough troops. It’s just a big area and you need a boat-load more people,” a U.S. defense official said.
While U.S. forces are concentrated along the Pakistan border in the east, British, Canadian and Dutch forces, backed by five other nations, have since 2006 suffered some of the worst casualty rates in the Taliban’s heartland in the south.
Britain, with some 8,000 soldiers in Helmand province, has suffered 125 troops killed and many more maimed and wounded in the fiercest fighting its forces have seen since the Korean War.
British coroners have catalogued a string of equipment shortages and failures that could have prevented many of the deaths; from too few helicopters and poorly armored vehicles to a lack of radio batteries and chargers that meant soldiers on hill-top posts had to fire bullets into the air to communicate.
British military commanders and Ministry of Defence officials should “hang their heads in shame” over failings that led to one death, a coroner said last month.
Canada has suffered even more. With just 2,500 troops to cover the large province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, 97 Canadian soldiers have been killed.
Nearly half of them have been killed by improvised explosive devices as a lack of helicopters has forced Canadian troops to move nearly everywhere by road. Ottawa has now been forced to lease six Russian-built helicopters to make up for its shortage.
Behind the scenes, there has been some U.S. dissatisfaction with its allies’ ability to conduct the war in the south.
“It was pretty clear in any of the dealings I was involved in that … the Americans were frustrated the Brits didn’t have some equipment, like helicopters, that they needed to support major operations,” said a Danish officer who recently ended a six-month tour in Helmand.
Repeated U.S. calls for other NATO allies to send troops to the south have largely fallen on deaf ears and nations with troops already in Regional Command-South made clear at a meeting in Canada last week they were all-but stretched to the limit.
“The eight RC-South countries have been carrying what I would describe as a disproportionate share of the load,” Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay told reporters there.
Commanders have asked for more than 20,000 extra troops for Afghanistan in the next 12 to 18 months, most of them likely to go to the south, a Pentagon spokesman said.
The United States is also urging its allies in the south to abandon the current piecemeal strategy of dividing the task of combating the Taliban between them province-by-province.
Any future U.S. deployments to the south will be placed under the regional commander to use as he sees fit, the Pentagon said.
“It’s a recognition that the south of Afghanistan has not been stabilized and there are problems in holding territory. Since no other country’s been willing to send in forces, it looks like the U.S. is the only country at this point willing to seriously increase its force presence,” said Seth Jones of the RAND Corporation think-tank.
“But it should not mean that everyone else goes away,” he said.
(Additional reporting by David Morgan in Washington and Luke Baker in London; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)