April 30, 2009:
All of the extra troops the UK is deploying to Afghanistan this year are to be sent to the volatile Afghan-Pakistani border regions, opening the start of the Britain's new strategy there. The Brits have been operating almost exclusively in the Helmand province and Afghan-Pakistan border regions for the past three years, and have recently enjoyed major success. But they have been fighting without adequate numbers to cover the entire area. They have also been operating without sufficient funds to make a sweeping impact on the area's educational and medical infrastructure, necessary to building popular support. The British are staying in Afghanistan and carrying on the fight, but, due to recent events, their troops are finally getting the boost they need to possibly finish off the Taliban in Helmand.
This new strategy means several changes and revisions to what the Brits had planned for the coming year. First off, the British government had already earlier planned to deploy 8,000 more troops to Afghanistan to help combat the terrorists and provide security for the government. The commanders on the ground wanted a lot more troops, claiming the number being given to them was much too small to accomplish their mission, a view justified by the large tracts of territory they must patrol and clear ( 8,000 troops simply wasn't enough manpower).
However, their requests were shot down by the government, particularly the Treasury who claimed the monetary strain would be more than the country could bear. But it looks as though the commanders will be getting exactly what they wanted in the first place, which is over 2,000 more troops. Instead of simply providing security for the upcoming elections in the summer, the additional troops will participate in the aggressive patrolling and offensive operations that have worked so well in previous months. Protecting the coming elections is still on, but the Brits want to follow up the successes they've had lately in their attacks on the terrorists, meaning more emphasis on attacking and less on security. The British have also decided this month to increase the size of the Special Air Service specifically in order to meet the increasing demand in Afghanistan for special operations forces.
Depending on how the plan works out, this could either be a good thing or a bad thing. Having more SAS is something all British commanders, and their allies, want. However, increasing the SAS numbers is easier said than done. The SAS selection course is far more intense than regular army training and boasts a dropout rate of well over 50 percent. This means the SAS can only grow very slowly. So far, the defense ministry has set a very reasonable goal of a 5 percent manpower increase. Since withdrawing from Iraq, the SAS are being redeployed to Afghanistan. Critics are claiming that the regular army needs to make up for its 4,500 recruit shortfall, troops that supply the bulk of combat manpower, before it begins tinkering with the special ops people. The Army is counting on adding 5,000 new recruits this year. Still, the plan to increase the "tan berets" is the most welcome part of the new strategy among commanders in Afghanistan, along with the added bodies they're set to receive.
Secondly, the new strategy isn't just limited to combat personnel. Over a billion dollars in economic and humanitarian aid is going to the border provinces, funds that the Brits are hoping will draw the local populace further away from Taliban influence and hopefully get them to grow something other than poppies. The UK had already planned to disperse the money, but they are realizing that they're going to have to do it more quickly if it is to do any good in conjunction with the beefed up combat power they're putting in theatre. The money was supposed to be distributed over a period of four years, but the increased activity along the border and the urgent need to hurry up and crush the Taliban, along with any local support for it, has forced the Crown to speed up its efforts to get the people over to their side. The money was always here, but it's mow being given in one large lump small instead of gradual installments.
Building up Afghanistan's infrastructure has long been a priority, but the latest increase of funds will mean more than just a few schools and hospitals erected by the Royal Engineers. The British are learning that, in a place as impoverished as Afghanistan, building a few clinics isn't enough, especially when the entire country exists in an almost medieval state. In order to win "hearts and minds" and in a short time at that, a massive undertaking is required and time is at a premium. The allies already have the Taliban on the defensive and are eager to take advantage of that and exploit their waning popularity as much as possible. In Afghanistan, and especially the border provinces, clean water and Western medicine translates into popular support. The sooner people are being fed and their children get vaccines against childhood diseases, the sooner they'll start telling the allies where the bad guys are.
This comes as even worse news for a Taliban that is under attack both in Afghanistan and Pakistan and whose popular support is waning heavily. The British have fought in Afghanistan before and are not eager to repeat the mistakes of every other invading force in history.