Since that time and up to the beginning of this century no British boot has tramped Afghan soil. "Tommies" re-appeared in Afghanistan in 2002, after the overthrow of the "Taliban" regime and the stationing of a large contingent of foreign troops in that country. However, up to now the British played a rather modest role in Afghanistan, being second to their US allies both in the scale and the activity of their military presence. But, to all appearances, this situation is soon to change.
As recently reported in the British press, preparations are in full swing in Great Britain for a large-scale operation to station early in 2006 a significant British contingent in the Afghan province of Helmand. The operation consists in re-deployment in that province, which is considered the biggest Afghan center of drug production, several thousand British servicemen and civilian advisors both from other Afghan provinces and from Great Britain itself.
The objective of the operation is to help the central Afghan government in establishing firm control of the province and stopping the production of opium and heroin there. As yet only a small detachment of US troops is deployed in the province, based on the outskirts of the provincial center of Lashkar Gar. The Americans are due to leave by the end of March, and their base is supposed to become the headquarters of the British operational group reinforced by units from several other European countries.
The core of the British group will be the 16th Air Assault Brigade, whose reconnaissance team has already toured Helmand. At present construction work is underway at the base to build barracks, warehouses and a communications center. The province was also visited by a special research team of the British Ministry of Defense whose aim it was to conduct an opinion poll to find out the local population's reaction to the impending arrival of a large contingent of British troops.
The point is that British soldiers had not been seen here since the XIX century, when British Imperial troops withdrew from this part of Afghanistan after their defeat in the Battle of Maivand in the nearby province of Kandagar in 1880. In this connection the British military command feared that the local government might harbor anti-British sentiments. However, these fears have found no substantiation so far. The majority of the local respondents said they would be glad to see the British back if this would improve their life. In their words, it is security, end of lawlessness and arbitrariness of gunmen that they need most of all.
In this context, officials in London and Kabul hope that the arrival of a large contingent of well-armed and trained British paratroopers may play a positive role. Besides, experienced paratroopers and commandos from Britain would train and put in shape the local security forces. In the long run it is these forces that would have to solve the task of finally eradicating the "bastion of drug production" in Helmand.
To facilitate that task, a special training base known as "Camp Ashton" is being set up, where British instructors are to form and train a brigade of 3,000 soldiers for the emerging Afghan national army. Simultaneously, British police specialists would train 1,800 local policemen to raise their efficiency and service motivation.
For the time being, the low-salaried local policemen are considered extremely unreliable and easily bribed by drugs traffickers. The Afghan authorities acknowledge that a significant part of the police personnel are themselves actively involved in illegal drugs trade. To establish relations of understanding with the local authorities and law-enforcement structures will be one of the major challenges for the British in Helmand.
Another key issue is how tough the British would be with drugs traffickers, as using force against them would surely cause a sharp response. So far the US-led coalition and the NATO force in Afghanistan have avoided such confrontations. For the US, its war on terror against the "Taliban" and "Al-Qaeda" has taken priority, while NATO has been focused on its peacekeeping role.
However, the West has recently been under strong pressure by world community and official Kabul to take measures to end the impunity of Afghan drugs traffickers. Politicians and experts also point out that a large portion of profits from the drugs traffic goes to fund the "Taliban" and "Al-Qaeda".
The Afghan authorities also ask for the British troops to patrol Helmand's open desert border with Pakistan. There is currently no Afghan government presence there at all. US troops are reluctant to go there too, one reason being that their vehicles "often get stuck in the soft desert sands".
Well, the British are used to taking up difficult tasks. Also, the British army is still carefully guarding in its annals the hard experience gained in Afghanistan in the XIX century. Possibly, this would help Great Britain to visibly succeed this time and avoid the fate of the British Empire that first got stuck in that country and then had to leave it in disgrace.