KABUL // Two bleak milestones have officially been reached in Afghanistan, with the death toll for British troops hitting the 300 mark and Australian forces suffering their worst combat losses since Vietnam. The casualties happened in the south of the country, where the Taliban-led insurgency continues to grow from strength to strength and bloodshed is at record levels almost nine years after the war began.
A helicopter crash early yesterday morning in Kandahar province killed three Australian special operations soldiers and wounded seven. Although Taliban involvement was ruled out, an investigation will take place, the head of the Australian armed forces announced. Meanwhile, Britain reached its own grim landmark when a man from the Royal Marines died in hospital in England on Sunday from injuries he had sustained in the Sangin district of Helmand, earlier this month.
"Of course the 300th death is no more or less tragic than the 299 that came before," said the British prime minister, David Cameron. "We are paying a high price for keeping our country safe, for making our world a safer place and we should keep asking why we are there and how long we must be there," he said. "We are there because the Afghans are not yet ready to keep their own country safe and to keep terrorists and terrorist training camps out of their country."
Also yesterday, at least three other foreign troops, including an American aboard the helicopter with the Australians, were killed. Each month so far this year has seen more casualties among international forces than in the corresponding month for 2009 and the worst of the summer's fighting is expected to come. Pressure is now mounting on Nato members to show progress is being made, despite what is beginning to seem like a constant flow of body bags coming out of Afghanistan.
Domestically, the British public have grown increasingly restless with a war few anticipated when their troops were sent to Helmand in 2006 on what was billed as a reconstruction mission. The newly elected coalition government led by the Conservatives has vowed to bring its forces home as soon as possible, but a timetable for withdrawal remains elusive and all signs indicate that the situation on the ground here is getting worse, not better.
This week the UN revealed that violence had risen drastically in 2010, while overall security "has not improved". In a quarterly report, it said roadside bomb attacks were up by 94 per cent in the first four months of the year and assassinations had increased by 45 per cent. The number of complex suicide bombings had doubled to roughly two per month. All of this bad news comes as international forces face a race against time. Nato has announced it soon wants to begin handing over responsibility for security in some provinces to the Afghan government. The US president Barack Obama, is also due to start pulling out his troops in July 2011. More than 1,120 US service members have died in the war.