London, Asharq Al-Awsat-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown stressed yesterday that the equipment which the British Government is providing for its soldiers in Afghanistan is adequate and that the soldiers have the necessary resources for fighting Taliban. The Prime Minister was responding to criticisms from Conservatives Party Leader David Cameron about sending soldiers to fight without enough equipment. Speaking at the House of Commons’, Brown said the government increased the number of helicopters for the soldiers in Afghanistan and stressed that the British forces have been provided with the best equipment in 49 years.
Barry Marston, an official at the British Foreign Office, asserted to Asharq Al-Awsat that Britain has spent more than 1 billion sterling pounds on new vehicles and equipment and that there have been big improvements in the military equipment in several areas of Afghanistan.
Brown’s defense of his government’s plan for the British forces fighting in Helmand was in response to Cameron who held a press conference yesterday at which he criticized the “scandal” of the shortage of helicopters with the British soldiers saying this was limiting their movements inside the country. The British forces suffered their heaviest human losses since the start of the war against the Taliban in 2001 when eight soldiers were killed last Friday in just 24 hours. Marston said the rise in the number of casualties in Afghanistan during the past days was “the result of intensive actions by the British forces to push the Taliban outside the areas where they are positioned in Helmand.” He explained that “one of the reasons for this large number of civilian and military deaths is Taliban’s move from the means of conventional confrontations to non-conventional practices which we call terrorism, such as planting mines on roadsides and carrying out suicide operations”, but he added that these methods “are evidence of a weakness inside the Taliban.”
Commenting on Cameron’s criticism of the shortage of the British soldiers’ equipment, Marston said an increase in equipment “is not always the magical solution” and added: “Of course, there must be a balance between the two things to ensure their safety as much as possible but most of the times it is not a question of providing our soldiers with heavy weapons but ensuring that they are in direct contact with the Afghan people and taking part in the reconstruction processes.”
The coalition forces in Afghanistan have the strategy of fighting Taliban while achieving development in the poor Afghan areas and they admit that the route to victory over Taliban is not just through military force. Britain announced in 2007 that its strategy for the war in Afghanistan was to ensure that Taliban did not have save havens from which to run its operations while strengthening the central Afghan Government and encouraging it to expand its influence in the country in addition to training the Afghan forces. After stressing to Asharq Al-Awsat that this strategy is linked to the security of Britain and the region, Marston said: “We are there for the long term and are committed to the Afghan Government. But our mission is not to wipe the Taliban from the face of the earth but to marginalize it while encouraging reconciliation and creating the environment for economic development.” He added: “If Taliban does disappear tomorrow, we are clear that we still have years to continue the work there so as to improve conditions in Afghanistan.” On what the coalition forces are hoping to achieve in Afghanistan in the long term, he said “not to achieve a big military victory but to strengthen the Afghan force so as to shoulder the responsibility and to see the coalition forces withdraw in its favor.” He pointed out that the same thing happened in Iraq and achieved “a great success.”
In reply to a question about the impact on the British forces of the weak European contribution of soldiers to the fighting in Afghanistan, Marston said: “Britain has the second largest force in that country after the United States. Our soldiers are deployed in the most difficult parts of the country and taking part in the most difficult battles while it is not the same thing with the other European forces.” He added: “There were important contributions from our partners in NATO during the past years. But it is important that everyone should acknowledge that the conflict in Afghanistan is important for all of us and not just for Britain.”
The Guardian newspaper and the BBC published yesterday an opinion poll showing a rise in popular support for the military operations in Afghanistan despite the rise in human losses among the British soldiers during the past days. The poll conducted by “ACM” showed that 46 percent of the British were still approving the war on Afghanistan, a 15 point rise since 2006 when the institute held another poll. Marston explained the increased support for the military mission in Afghanistan by saying: “The British have been following up for a long time what has been happening there. I believe there is a general understanding of the importance of what is happening in that country.” He added: “Since there are many areas in Afghanistan that are not under the control of anyone, Al-Qaeda and other groups might use them to launch attacks abroad. This happened in 9/11 and I believe that many know that sitting and watching what is happening is the biggest mistake.”
The main obstacle facing the British soldiers in Helmand is the Taliban’s new tactic of planting mines in the roads and buildings which raises the number of victims among soldiers and civilians. But Marston stresses that what is more important “is to affirm to the Afghans that Taliban will not return and that NATO is committed to ensuring that the black days will not return.”