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British worry US approach to Afghanistan will play into Taliban's plans

By Tom / February 5, 2007

As an American general takes charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, senior British military officers are voicing concern that an imminent push by the US will force British troops into an "overly aggressive" posture that will play into the hands of the Taliban.

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The Times of London reports that some British officers say that the Americans "just don't get it" when it comes to dealing with the local inhabitants.

The extent of "frictions" between US and British commanders are revealed in the latest edition of Pegasus, the journal of the Parachute Regiment, in which an unnamed senior officer accuses the Americans of undermining British strategy during last year's handover.

British troops had planned to focus on reconstruction to win hearts and minds among the local population, the article states. However, American commanders "forced" them to take part in an offensive.

"The UK taskforce arrived in theatre immediately prior to Operation Mountain Thrust, an offensive operation being planned by the US commander to destroy and defeat the Taliban," Pegasus says. "Despite our 'ownership' of Helmand and our request to conduct ops in 'the British way' we were unable to prevent Mountain Thrust occurring. As a result of the threat of unilateral action and in order to ensure our own force protection, UK taskforce's involvement was forced."

The article in Pegasus goes on to say that the overly aggressive operation forced a change in the security situation in the Helmand province and ultimately played into the hands of the Taliban, though The Times does not cite an explanation of how the Taliban benefited.

The Times quotes a British military source who says, while there has been "a lot of talk" about a change in the US position since a new US counter-insurgency manual was issued (written by Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the new US commander in Iraq), but "the truth is they [the US] just don't get it. You have at all costs to keep the local population on your side or you have no chance of winning."

The Associated Press reports that the new US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, is expected to "to take a harder line with militants than his predecessor, [British] Gen. David Richards." The change comes a few days after a peace deal Gen. Richards brokered with the Taliban in Musa Qala fell apart when 200 fighters overran the southern town.

One American military officer who labeled McNeill a "warfighter to the bone" said his arrival likely signals the end of such deals, saying they would go under "much greater scrutiny." The official asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

A senior Afghan military official, meanwhile, said the Defense Ministry expected McNeill to implement a policy of "strong military action." Other American officials said they expected a stronger approach under McNeill, without specifying what that would be.

The Globe and Mail of Toronto reports that Canadian military officials in Afghanistan also see signs of an increase in military activity by both sides, and say that one of the next areas of confrontation will be the northern Helmand River valley. A researcher for the paper went into this area and found it controlled by Taliban, who bragged about their battles with the British.

The Taliban also said they had hemmed in the British troops, confining them to their base and making sport of shooting at helicopters ferrying them food supplies.

"We have made our own Guantanamo for the foreign soldiers," said Mullah Alah Nazar, a local Taliban commander also known as Haji Nika. "They are trapped."