BRITAIN’S special forces have suffered the worst blow to their fighting strength since the second world war, with 80 members killed or crippled in Afghanistan.
Serious injuries have left more than 70 unable to fight, while 12 have been killed. It means the forces have lost about a sixth of their full combat capacity.
The Sunday Times has established that the Special Air Service (SAS) and Special Boat Squadron (SBS) have mounted “several hundred” operations targeting Taliban leaders since 2007.
British special forces operations in southern Afghanistan now centre on persuading mid-ranking Taliban leaders that they are better off working with the Afghan government.This involves a mixture of “hard arrests” — snatch operations to grab key Taliban leaders to gather intelligence — and “offensive action” in which Taliban leaders are killed.
A senior special forces source said: “There are ops happening every day and very big ops, hard arrests, offensive actions — it’s having a lot of effect on the Taliban leadership.”
Sources say commanders are putting pressure on the SAS and SBS reservists to fill the gaps in manpower. The high casualty rate is a result of both the scale of special forces operations in the past three years and the Taliban’s increasing use of roadside bombs.
“The operational pool has been severely depleted,” the source said. “It’s largely because of the numbers of injuries. There are lots of Hereford [SAS] and Poole [SBS] guys walking round with missing limbs.”
The death toll includes three from the SBS, one SAS officer, three SAS reservists, one member of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR), and four members of the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG). That has added to the previous toll from Iraq, where seven members of the SAS and one SBS commando died and more than 30 members of the SAS suffered crippling injuries.
The Falklands claimed the lives of 19 SAS members — 18 of them in a helicopter crash.
The commanding officer of the SBS, in charge of British special forces operations in southern Afghanistan, has warned that the pace of operations is likely to continue. “Many of our team have been almost continually fighting our country’s enemies since 2001,” he said, “and it is likely that our current scale of effort will continue for some time.”
“Sabre” squadrons of SBS and SAS are based at the tactical group headquarters in Kandahar. Unlike Iraq, where the SAS was in the lead, Afghanistan has seen a dramatic increase in operations by the SBS, which has seen its budget increase from £17m in 2001 to £160m today. This winter the SBS reverted to arctic warfare skills, using skis to track down Taliban commanders above the snowline in the Hindu Kush.