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Canada’s Allies In Afghanistan: The United Kingdom

March 13, 2010
British soldiers in Afghanistan.

British Royal Marine Commandos take part in Operation Sond Chara, the clearance of Nad-e Ali District of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. Photo credits: British Royal Army Sergeant James Elmer

I promised a couple of weeks ago to write about the exploits of some of our European allies in Afghanistan, whose victories, setbacks and sacrifices often seem to go largely unnoticed by the Canadian media. It seems natural to start with one of our motherlands, the United Kingdom, which also happens to have the largest national contingent in Afghanistan apart from the juggernaut of the US military. There are currently about 9,500 British troops deployed in Afghanistan, primarily based in Helmand Province with their centre of operations at a site called Camp Bastion. The deployment has included some of the most famous regiments in the British Army, including the Royal Welch Fusiliers (now formally a battalion of the Royal Welsh), the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and the Coldstream Guards. As of March 8, the British had sustained 272 fatalities.

One particularly noteworthy British soldier to have served in Afghanistan was a certain Harry Windsor, who was quietly deployed for about 10 weeks as a second lieutenant in the Household Cavalry. To the amusement of his Gurkha companions, he was nicknamed the “bullet magnet”, on the theory that the Taliban would presumably have loved to kill a British prince. While both British and foreign media generally refrained from reporting on his presence in Afghanistan, this discreet silence was broken first by Australian and German publications, and then by the infamous Drudge Report website. The British Army hastily sent Prince Harry home; I think it’s a shame he couldn’t have stayed openly, perhaps in the company of volunteers willing to specifically accept the risk of serving alongside a bullet magnet.  His presence would have demonstrated to Canadian troops, as well as to British ones, that the risks and burdens of Afghanistan were being shared even in Her Majesty’s own household.

In many ways, Britain’s experience in Afghanistan has paralleled Canada’s. Both countries had relatively small contingents in the country until 2006, when NATO decided to expand decisively into the southern provinces. Canada took primary responsibility for Kandahar and Britain for Helmand, just to the west. The two provinces are dominated by Pashtuns, and see plenty of Taliban activity. Like the Canadian forces in Kandahar, the British have sometimes had to fight pitched battles with the Taliban, and have sometimes been in a position of trying to hold population centres, prevent Taliban infiltration, and encourage that haphazard and multifaceted process known as “development”.

Progress has been slow, but the British have been able to claim some important successes. After fighting hard in 2006 for control of the town of Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, they agreed a ceasefire with the Taliban that was supposed to see both sides withdraw and leave control of the town to tribal leaders. In February 2007 the Taliban broke the deal, seized control of the town and turned it into a centre of heroin production, but the British retook it in December alongside American and Afghan troops and have maintained control ever since. They are now preparing to hand Musa Qala to US Marines, and seem convinced that conditions in the town have improved greatly in the past two years.

More recently, British troops were at the forefront of Operation Moshtarak, which seized the rural areas of Nad-e-Ali and Marjah in central Helmand. Although many of the local Taliban simply retreated and lived to fight another day, and the strategic significance of Marjah seems to have been grossly exaggerated by the US military in particular, the operation (whose name means “together” in Dari, a curious decision for an offensive in a Pashtun area) was at least a significant advance into a region previously held by the Taliban. A similar offensive is planned later this year in order to take full control of the city of Kandahar, and Canadians can expect to play a major role.

It’s worth bearing in mind that, for Britain, the current campaign in Afghanistan could be seen as the Fourth Afghan War, following three earlier ones in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the popular image of Afghanistan as a “graveyard of empire”, none of the three wars was an unmitigated disaster for the British; however, it’s also true that the restive country beyond what was then the western frontier of British India was never fully subdued. The main legacy of these conflicts among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan was perhaps a hostility to Britain that persists to this day, and which cannot exactly be helping matters in Helmand Province. To some extent, every British soldier may be a bullet magnet, marked for vengeance because of the overreach of an empire that now exists only as a pale shadow.

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