Monday, March 23, 2009

UK to send specialist troops to Afghanistan to counter bomb threat

Britain is to deploy 200 specialist troops to Afghanistan to counter the growing threat from improvised explosive devices, according to government officials.

The devices, notably roadside bombs, are accounting for about 80% of the deaths of British soldiers in the country. They are becoming increasingly powerful, as the deaths of two soldiers of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers earlier this month appeared to show. The soldiers were travelling in a new, and relatively tough, Jackal armoured vehicle.

Commanders hope the increasing use of small unmanned aerial vehicles with powerful cameras will help to identify insurgents planting the devices.

Whitehall officials say British military commanders are also drawing up plans to deploy between 1,000 and 1,500 troops as part of what they call an "election surge". They could join the 8,000 British troops based in Helmand province for a limited period covering the presidential elections due to be held on 20 August, officials say.

However, the army is so stretched that the extra troops are unlikely to stay for long. Instead, the British garrison in Helmand will be bolstered by some of the 17,000 extra US troops who will be deployed throughout southern Afghanistan over the next nine months. The Americans will bring with them 120 helicopters, badly needed by British soldiers.

Camp Bastion, the British base in Helmand, is being expanded to three times its present size to accommodate the US troops. By May, C17 transport aircraft will make 675 monthly flights bringing equipment and supplies. By late summer the number will total 860 a month, the MoD said. "That is about the same amount of freight that Gatwick airport has to cope with," according to Air Commodore Les O'Dea, commanding officer of UK Joint Force Support.

British troops are expecting what military observers call a "tough summer", with the Taliban and other insurgents scenting growing anxiety among governments with soldiers in Afghanistan over what British ministers and officials call "strategic stalemate".

British officials also stress the need for "Afghanisation" - giving more responsibility to the Afghans. The US wants to double the size of the Afghan army and police force to more than 400,000.

The US, which has given up trying to persuade its Nato allies to send more troops to southern Afghanistan, hopes that they will at least contribute more money. Pledges for more aid are expected at the Nato summit in Strasbourg in early April.

British officials say that they take some comfort from stronger local government and economic initiatives by the governor of Helmand, Gulab Mangal, appointed by Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, last year.

Wheat seeds have been handed out to 32,000 Afghan farmers in Helmand to try to encourage them to abandon growing opium poppies. Heroin manufacturers and traders, meanwhile, are being pursued by British intelligence officers and special forces.

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