Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Tom Coghlan, "Paras almost retreated under Taliban assault," Telegraph, October 2, 2006.

British forces in southern Afghanistan came within hours of retreating from a key base because they suffered a critical shortage of helicopters, the task force commander has disclosed.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Telegraph Brig Ed Butler said Taliban fire was so heavy and accurate at Musa Qala, a key forward base in northern Helmand, that Army helicopters faced a serious risk of being hit.

He said the loss of such crucial equipment — together with the political impact of a large loss of life — meant he came close to ordering his soldiers to abandon the base.

Brig Butler said he had warned his superiors early last month that the intensity of Taliban attacks was such that mounting air supply and casualty evacuation missions was likely to lead to the loss of Chinook helicopters.

The brigadier, who leaves his posting at the end of the week, said: "The strategic significance of losing Musa Qala would have been huge, but that was set against the likelihood of helicopters being lost. The political impact, particularly so soon after the loss of the Nimrod, was also going to be huge."

A Nimrod was lost with 14 crewmen, apparently because of technical failure, over southern Afghanistan on Sept 4. There are only six British Chinooks in theatre, with two more on their way, and commanders have made repeated pleas to Nato allies to send additional aircraft.

"We were not going to be beaten by the Taliban in Musa Qala," said Brig Butler, "but the threat to helicopters from very professional Taliban fighters and particularly mortar crews was becoming unacceptable. We couldn't guarantee that we weren't going to lose helicopters."

The paratroopers were within 36 hours of abandoning the base before tribal elders approached the Afghan government to negotiate a ceasefire between British forces and the Taliban in the area.

"I told them 'you tell the Taliban to stop firing at us and my soldiers will stop firing back at you'," said the brigadier. He called the ceasefire, which has held for 16 days, an "Afghan solution".

"We are bidding for people's minds here. The people here are sick of war and they are turning to the Afghan government to end it.

"I am pragmatic about this. We won't turn Afghanistan around overnight as some people continue to believe. Moral, legal and ethical compasses of some people may be tested by this process, but the repercussions of failure are too great to be contemplated."

Brig Butler defended the decision to commit forces to "platoon houses", isolated bases in the north of Helmand, which tied down almost half the available British infantry and became the focus of continuous Taliban attacks.

"We didn't plan to occupy the platoon houses, President Karzai and Governor Daoud wanted British forces to hold north Helmand," he said. "But the unintended consequence of going into the platoon houses is that we have defeated the Taliban for this year, tactically, in north Helmand, and from this an opportunity has emerged."

Following the Musa Qala ceasefire, there has been a reduction in violence. Brig Butler said tribal elders from other districts were also negotiating with the provincial government to establish similar deals.

Addressing the men of 3rd Bn the Parachute Regiment yesterday afternoon as they prepared to leave Afghanistan, Brig Butler said: "What is important is that this was a battle of attrition and the Taliban blinked before we did.

"They capitulated, they made the fatal error of thinking that the Parachute Regiment would cut and run."

But he acknowledged that other factors may be at play. The new poppy planting season began two weeks ago, which requires high levels of agricultural labour, men who might otherwise be fighting.

The Taliban and the opium economy rely heavily on hired labour from the mass of unemployed in the south.

Fighting is also a largely seasonal activity that drops away as winter approaches, when the Taliban retreat to regroup and rearm.

"I fully acknowledge that we could be being duped; that the Taliban may be buying time to reconstitute and regenerate," said Brig Butler.

"But every day that there is no fighting the power moves to the hands of the tribal elders who are turning to the government of Afghanistan for security and development.

"That is the glimmer of an opportunity which could be deliverable if we seize it. It is about people power and it could gain momentum."

He said troops would now press ahead with redevelopment work that was the focus for the original British plan.

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