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Britain Key Part of Afghan Strategy

  • Jennifer Glasse

Britain's new foreign secretary, William Hague, is in Washington meeting with his American counterpart. One of the main topics they'll discuss is Afghanistan, where Britain has deployed 10,000 troops.

Some military analysts say U.S. and British forces should move quickly on Afghanistan, particularly in strategic areas such as the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan where NATO forces are planning a major offensive.

US and British forces have been engaged in a number of military offenses in Southern Afghanistan in recent months. That's part of a new strategy, according to Malcolm Chalmers, a military analyst at London's Royal United Services Institute.

"Basically what they are engaged in right now is breaking the momentum of the Taliban because there's a widespread agreement that over the last couple of years, the Taliban's influence has been spreading. And they've got NATO on the back foot," said Chalmers.

That is in part why U.S. President Barack Obama has sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan under the strategy put together - in part - by the top U.S. commander General Stanley McChrystal.

The former head of the British Army, General Richard Dannat told the BBC that the plan is a good one.

"This whole process of clearing areas, holding them securely with enough boots on the ground and then building a better life for the people, we can get it right," said the general. "It's got to be rolled out across the South of Afghanistan between the British army, the American Army and the U.S. Marine Corps."

General Dannatt adds that part of that roll out includes the impending offensive in Kandahar for obvious reasons.

"Kandahar is effectively the power base for the Taliban and the Taliban if they want to control the country, first of all they have to control Kandahar, and then they've opened up the access to Kabul." Confronting the Taliban is critical, he said.

"The fact of the matter is that the Taliban is effectively a front for al- Qaida, al-Qaida is the expression of the militant Islamist agenda which if we don't oppose it and face it off in Southern Afghanistan or Afghanistan or in South Asia, then frankly that influence will grow."

At the heart of the strategy in Afghanistan is winning over the Afghan population. Andy Bearpark heads the British Association of Private Security Companies. Many of them work in Afghanistan. Bearpark believes carrying out a military operation without alienating the people is challenging.

"We've seen the awful effects of what happens when you kill innocent civilians and you can turn entire groups of people against you that way so you really strengthen and broaden the insurgency far and away from the original insurgency."

But Bearpark also said security is crucial.

"The reality is that until you have security, it's really impossible to achieve very much." And in some ways, he said, insurgents have an advantage. "You can build as many power stations as you want, it takes quite a long time to build one, it doesn't take that many seconds to blow one up."

RUSI's Chalmers says something that has been tried and perhaps should be considered again, is negotiating with the more moderate Taliban.

"One of the things which we've not done enough on is understand the complexities of Afghan politics and think about a political settlement in Afghanistan that brings on board those elements of Afghan society that are not sufficiently represented."

While public opinion here in Britain remains skeptical about the prospects for success in Afghanistan, Chalmers does not think the new British government which took power this week will make big changes.

"I don't think the UK is going to pull out of Afghanistan, as long as the U.S. is there in substantial numbers, but there is a lot of political pressure to reduce the burden," said Chalmers.

Next year, he said, is more uncertain.

"Everybody's asking where the U.S. will go after the middle of next year which is when President Obama said he is going to start drawing down forces but nobody knows what that means."

Commanders in Afghanistan say by July, 2011, the date given for the drawdown, they should have a good idea how much help the newly trained Afghan army and police forces will need to secure the country and whether Western forces can begin to leave Afghanistan in substantial numbers.

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