British military vehicles in Helmand province, Afghanistan, try to recover… (Abdul Khaleq, Associated…)
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and London —
Britain, the United States' staunchest ally in Afghanistan, has suffered its worst single battlefield loss in six years, testing a strained coalition's commitment to ensure that Afghan security forces can take over the task of fighting the Taliban.
Six British troops were presumed dead after a massive blast destroyed their heavily armored vehicle in Helmand province, Western military officials said Wednesday. The fatalities mark a grim milestone, pushing British deaths in the course of the 10-year war above 400, a toll second only to American losses of more than 1,900 troops.
Flags were lowered to half-staff at the main British base in Helmand, and Prime Minister David Cameron called the loss of the six soldiers "desperately sad." The BBC reported that the six had arrived in Afghanistan only a month earlier.
Cameron, who is to meet next week with President Obama, told the House of Commons that his White House visit would be "an opportunity to make sure that Britain and America … are absolutely in lock-step about the importance of training up the Afghan army, training up the Afghan police … so that the Afghans can take responsibility for the security of their own country and we can bring our forces home."
The training mission, however, has been complicated by an intensifying pattern of "green-on-blue" shootings — attacks carried out by members of the Afghan security forces or their affiliates — which have killed at least 11 Western troops so far this year, including six Americans. Moreover, talks remain bogged down over terms of an agreement governing any long-term U.S. presence in Afghanistan after 2014, when the NATO combat role is to come to an end.
Other U.S. allies, mindful of the war's political unpopularity at home, accelerated their pullbacks after violent episodes. France moved up the timetable for the end to its combat role after four of its troops were killed by an Afghan soldier in January; in February, the Germans abandoned a small base in northern Afghanistan after it came under attack during riots over the burning of copies of the Koran at a U.S. base.
In Britain, as elsewhere, senior political leaders now tend to portray the Afghan mission in terms of thwarting any threat from Al Qaeda rather than the emphasis placed in previous years on rebuilding a war-shattered country. The British defense secretary, Philip Hammond, told Sky News after word of the Helmand fatalities, "We're there primarily to protect our own national security, our own national interest."
Some 24 hours after the Helmand explosion, which took place Tuesday evening, the wrecked 25-ton Warrior armored vehicle, which has tracks like a tank, still had not been recovered, the NATO force said. For that reason, the fatalities were not yet listed as confirmed, but military officials said the soldiers' families had been notified of their deaths.
A Helmand provincial spokesman, Daud Ahmadi, said the explosion was believed to have been caused by a roadside bomb planted in Helmand's Gereshk district. The NATO force also said the blast was from an improvised explosive device, or IED, but some British officials suggested the culprit could have been a Soviet-era land mine. The cause cannot be determined until the vehicle is brought back to base for forensic testing.
The incident pointed up continuing dangers inAfghanistan'ssouth despite military gains touted by the NATO force.
Helmand, together with neighboring Kandahar province, is considered the Taliban movement's home ground, although in the last two years the insurgents have been driven from many of their longtime strongholds. Another deadly attack occurred Wednesday in southern Kandahar province when a bomb planted on a motorbike exploded at a busy market in Spin Buldak, near the Pakistani border, killing four people.
The British deaths in Helmand came one day after a trip to the province by the American commander of the NATO force, Gen. John Allen. During his visit Monday, he told U.S. Marines in Marjah, the scene of a major offensive in February 2010, that their efforts were "helping to make the area a safer place for Afghans to live and work," according to a military press release.
Several parts of Helmand, including its capital, Lashkar Gah, are now under the security control of the Afghan police and army, part of a nationwide push for Afghan forces to take over most combat duties next year. That coincides with a drawdown of U.S. troops that began in the latter part of last year and is to gather speed this year.
By the end of this year, the U.S. contingent is to be reduced to about 68,000 troops, down from a high of more than 100,000. The U.S. troop withdrawal is to be completed by the end of 2014. Americans make up the bulk of the NATO force.
King reported from Kabul and Chu from London. Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash in Kabul contributed to this report.