British troops also paying heavy price in Afghanistan war

Like most of his countrymen, Pte. Colin Walstow admitted that he “did not have a clue” that Canada was fighting only 60 kilometres to the east of where he was serving as a combat medic for the British army in Helmand Province.

Most Canadians suffer from a similar myopia.

They have been so focused on Canada’s war in Kandahar that most don’t know the British have been fighting and dying in almost similar numbers in neighbouring Helmand.

Since 9/11, 152 Britons and 117 Canadians have died in Afghanistan.

Britain has dispatched 8,300 troops and five infantry battalions to Helmand. Canada has about 3,000 soldiers and one infantry battalion in Kandahar.

The British have mostly fought from light-armoured Land Rovers. That is a path that Canada abandoned shortly after moving their forces from Kabul to Kandahar in 2006 because its jeep-like vehicles were considered vulnerable to improvised explosive devices.

Canadian soldiers mostly use armoured personnel carriers and heavily armoured RG-32 trucks to get around. They also have Leopard tanks.

“If you’ve got the enemy within, laying bombs and attacking with small pockets of men, there are not many scenarios in this small zone for armour,” said Col. Greville Bibby, the British contingent’s deputy commander, adding that the populated terrain in this province was not practical for heavy vehicles.

“Our experience in Northern Ireland is that you can’t influence the people from behind 10 inches of armour. You can’t do it whizzing past with armour, pushing them off the road.”

Still, the similarities between how the Commonwealth allies are prosecuting this violent, opium-fuelled war in the Taliban heartland are more striking than the differences. After the Brits and Canadians won some very one-sided early battles against insurgents in Helmand and Kandahar, the enemy now mostly causes mayhem by planting IEDs.

Contact has been particularly light in recent weeks because so many of the insurgents have been out harvesting opium.

However, the fighting season is expected to begin again in earnest in a few weeks.

The British contingent in Afghanistan is the 19th Light Brigade — the last of the light brigades immortalized in Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem about the heroism of the troops carrying out a senseless cavalry charge against the Russians during the Crimean War.

And just as the Canadians are about to hand over the largely unpopulated northeastern and southeastern half of Kandahar to a U.S. Army Stryker Brigade, the British are transferring the largely unpopulated southern half of Helmand to a U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade.

The Brits and the Canadians have embraced the growing American presence and have adopted nearly identical strategies to try to win Afghans over. They are using provincial reconstruction teams comprised of civilians and soldiers that are “as joined at the hip as an organization can be,” Bibby said.

The British and the Afghan government already have established five protected communities within a security bubble since they began the program early last year.

Brig.-Gen. Jon Vance, Canada’s commander in Kandahar, revealed a similar strategy last week, with work to begin soon to secure the town of Deh-E-Bagh.

“We’re not trying to turn Helmand into Hampshire,” said Bibby, who is No. 2 at the Helmand PRT to a British foreign affairs official. But the security bubble strategy “works. It is absolutely fantastic to see. It is all about them doing it. I can tell you that if we pulled out, the locals would be very angry. They are really hungry for this.”

Bibby and other soldiers at Lashkar Gah, which is the British headquarters, expressed frustration with their own journalists for seldom wanting to report on the non-military war.

“The British media focus on the kinetic stuff,” said Sgt. Paul Crawford, a Royal Engineer who had served previously in Iraq and Afghanistan. “They want to film firefights. But the majority of what we do is stability and construction.”

One of the ways the British army has tried to do that is to send six-member teams of experts to the most far-flung places.

“We are trying to map the human terrain to understand as much we can about the human environment,” said Maj. James Bunyard of the The 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh. “It all boils down to developing capacity. We want to hand over to civilians, to other foreigners, or better yet, to Afghans. This is a very complex environment. Everything we do is about getting an Afghan to do something for himself.”

As in Canada, there is also a war to be won at home. While hugely supportive of their troops, many Britons remain skeptical about the mission.

“My impression is that there is a lack of understanding as to why we are here,” Bibby said. “Like so many things political, the media use this to discuss political implications, rather than what is actually happening on the ground.”

There were hard facts to support the contention that “there are absolute signs of progress,” said Lt.-Col. Nick Richardson, a Royal Engineer who runs media operations in Helmand.

“During the Taliban time, there were one million kids in school. There are six million now. Back then, eight per cent of the population had access to health care. It is now 80 per cent. And 35,000 kids are alive because of immunization programs.”

Unlike Ottawa, which has announced its combat mission in Kandahar will end late in 2011, Britain has an open-ended combat commitment in Helmand.

“It has been challenging. We are almost working at capacity,” Bibby said. “But we can do it and I am confident that we can keep going at this level as long as we keep doing it.”

Walstow, the combat medic, said there was an “atmospheric change” every time he “crossed the bridge” and left the relative peace of Lashkar Gah.

The 20-year-old private said he had already been told that it was likely he will be back in Helmand again sometime in the winter of 2010/2011.