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

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.

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."

A NATO spokesman said the British troops in Sangin still have freedom of movement, but Col. Kampman acknowledged that the situation in that district cannot be allowed to continue. That stretch along the Helmand River holds strategic importance because it's a fertile growing area for poppies, making it vital for the drug trade, he said. A crucial electricity corridor also runs through that area, carrying power from the Kajaki dam to Kandahar city. The city has experienced severe shortages of electricity in recent months, but a US contractor hired to expand the dam's capacity has refused to work until security improves.

The Globe and Mail also reports that the Taliban position has hardened since the death of Mullah Akhtar Usmani in an air strike. Mr. Usmani was seen as a moderating voice in the Taliban, and his death has opened the door for his rival, the "notoriously bloodthirsty" Mullah Dadullah, to exercise more control over Taliban operations.

Meanwhile, the current inquest into the death of Lance Cpl. Matthew 'Matty' Hull, who as killed in 2003 when two American jets mistakenly attacked a British convoy in Iraq, illustrates another concern for the British military about the US approach in Afghanistan: an increase in friendly fire deaths of British soldiers. The Observer reports how British ministers have battled for years to try and get the US military to provide explanations for the deaths of British soldiers in friendly fire incidents since 2003.

Britain maintains it would be glad to send soldiers to an inquest in America, but the fact remains that no UK soldier has killed an American counterpart in Iraq or Afghanistan. What rankles with many within the army is the Pentagon's refusal to even release the identities of US soldiers and pilots involved in friendly-fire deaths to the coroner or the [Ministry of Defense]. The pilots involved in Hull's death are understood to have never faced disciplinary action, let alone a court martial. A US Board of Inquiry on 28 March 2003 into the killing of the young lance corporal has never been made public. Sources claim that the cockpit footage, which is waiting to be declassified, records an American accent saying that 'someone's going to jail for this'.

The Daily Mail reported in November of 2006 that the British government became so furious over the US refusal to "make American troops answer for their mistakes on the battlefield," that former Solicitor General and current Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman summoned US Deputy Ambassador David Johnson for a "dressing down." The Guardian reported Friday that Ms. Harman said that she has met with Mr. Johnson several times, only to explain the British coroner's inquest system to him.

The Guardian also reports that a message board operated for British service personnel shows how deep the mistrust of US forces goes.

One said: 'I have met a former US pilot, and he would never have made the rank of private in the TA here. I wouldn't have trusted him to drive a bus.' Another said: 'The American military have the best technology and worst personnel. The British military have the worst technology but best personnel. The Americans have one mentality – if it moves, shoot it.'

The Daily Telegraph reports that while the Pentagon has not allowed the soldiers to appear at a British inquest into the death of Hull, the court was played a tape of the two US pilots involved, who were not identified, saying it happened because of "confusion over their intended targets, frustration at conflicting orders and poor communications with air controllers on the ground."

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