The news of the deaths of two more British soldiers in Afghanistan, taking the number of UK personnel killed to 201, is a painful reminder of the toll taken by the increasingly dangerous conflict.
British forces have reached some grim milestones in Afghanistan this summer, as fighting intensifies.
July proved to be a particularly cruel month in the eight-year war. Twenty-two British soldiers lost their lives in fierce fighting during Operation Panther’s Claw in Helmand province, in the south of the country. As British and American forces sought to uproot the Tailban from the region, among the dead was Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards.
Described as the “best of the best”, Thorneloe was the most senior British officer killed in action since the Falklands conflict. His death injected new venom into a debate that had been rumbling for years: whether British troops had the proper equipment, particularly armoured vehicles and helicopters, as the elusive Taliban exacted an increasing toll from roadside bombs. Commanders have been asking for more helicopters since 2006.
Another of July’s dark markers was reached when the number of deaths surpassed the 184 suffered in Iraq. The Rifles, the army’s largest infantry regiment, felt the impact more than most. On 12 July, five men of the 2nd Battalion The Rifles were killed in action near a base in Sangin, in Helmand. With 12 deaths since January, the Rifles have sustained the heaviest losses of any regiment this year. The Welsh Guards have also suffered heavily, losing seven of their number.
The escalating losses are a far cry from the optimistic sentiments expressed by former secretary of defence John Reid in April 2006. As Britain deployed 3,300 troops, Reid said: “We’re in the south to help and protect the Afghan people to reconstruct their economy and democracy. We would be perfectly happy to leave in three years time without firing one shot.”
British military involvement in Afghanistan began in November 2001 when Royal Marine commandos helped to secure Bagram airfield as US-led forces started their campaign to topple the Taliban following the September 11 attacks.
Casualties were light in the first few years. Five men died between April 2002 and the beginning of 2006, but the death toll rose sharply after British troops were deployed to Helmand. The fighting in the province, a Taliban stronghold, has been described as some of the fiercest endured by British troops since the Korean war in the 1950s.
Twenty-two servicemen died in 2006, 14 of them when their Nimrod reconnaissance plane crashed in October in the heaviest military loss of life in a single incident since the Falklands war. The number of deaths rose to 35 the next year, increasingly from roadside bombs, which claimed 17 lives.