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Brits to stay behind the wire in Afghanistan

BRITAIN is to stop fighting the Taliban – to allow them to vote.

The News of the World can reveal that major combat operations in Helmand are to be suspended for almost two months because of the Afghan elections in August.

British troops will be kept "behind the wire" to avoid antagonising the local population.

Aggressive patrolling will be suspended as will all seek and destroy missions.

The temporary suspension in the seven year war against the Taliban has been agreed after talks between the British Embassy in Kabul and the Afghan government.

But commanders down in Southern Afghanistan fear the decision will put Britain’s 8,000 troops there in even more danger.

And it also raises serious questions about Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to send 700 extra troops to the country to help "secure" the elections.

They are also worried that an end to British army patrols, even for a short time, will give the Taliban the chance to lay thousands of mines and roadside bombs before offensive operation start again after the temporary lull.

The British Army usually scale down aggressive fighting operations in many parts of Afghanistan during late Spring because of the poppy harvest.

Thousands of Taliban fighters melt away to return to their local villages to help with the opium crop.

But this year fighting resumed in June.

This year, British troops will be ordered to stay in their network of patrol bases and observation posts while the Afghanis go to the polls.

Some of those troops will monitor election stations, but they will not be mounting operations against the Taliban.

Voting is due to start next month and the fighting will be suspended when the polls open.

A source at the British Embassy told the News of the World: "All our troops will be behind the wire while the elections are underway. Any aggressive military presence would go down very badly with the local population. We have been painstakingly building up relations and this is a real flashpoint."

The NATO commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal last week defended the decision.

He said: "The election is very important and I feel that good arrangements have been made to ensure security during the election.

"Both the Afghan and ISAF forces have taken security measures in this regard and that I am very optimistic that the election will be held in a peaceful atmosphere."

However, the rising number of deaths from landmines, improvised explosive devices and ambushes worries military commanders.

A senior British military source recently returned from the army’s command base at Lashkar Gah, Helmand’s provincial capital has blasted the decision.

He said: "The number of IED strikes in Afghanistan is multiplying every day.

"Hundreds of mines are being found and in London you only hear about it when one explodes and someone is killed.

"The soldiers on the ground will obviously be overseeing as much ground as possible but if they are behind the wire they are limited.

"My concern is that there will be a sharp spike in casualties as soon as normal operations resume.

"There is no way we will be doing anything to jeopardise the eelection, but we we should not be kept in the Patrol Bases and Forward Operating Bases just to keep the government in Kabulhappy."

Between January 1 and March 31 this year Helmand endured an average of more than 11 insurgent attacks a day.

Barack Obama dispatched 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, a figure that is expected to rise to 30,000 in preparation for a "surge" to tackle what the President described as a "resurgent Taliban … and a deteriorating security situation".

But Operation Enduring Freedom – the American-led hunt for Osama Bin Laden, his al Qaeda commanders and top Taliban leaders - will continue during the election period.



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