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Mission creep: UK to send 400 troops to Afghanistan?

May 18, 2018

Summary: As the Taliban Spring offensive gets underway, additional troop deployments to Afghanistan are being mulled by the British government

It seems as if the UK Defence Minister is recommending the deployment of approximately 400 more British troops to Afghanistan.  They would – at first look, at least – be intended to support the training of Afghan soldiers, who have come under great pressure during the newly announced Taliban “Spring Offensive”.

BBC News, 18 May: The government is considering sending hundreds more British troops to Afghanistan, the BBC understands.  The defence secretary has written to Theresa May recommending the UK boosts its military presence in the country – but no decision has been made.  The UK currently has more than 600 troops in capital Kabul helping train Afghan security forces.  It follows calls by US President Donald Trump and Nato for allies to join him in sending more troops to the country.


Image result for British soldiers helmand training ANA

British and Afghan soldiers, Helmand


Historically, the British engagement with Afghanistan has been mixed at best and disastrous at worst. In the 18th to early 20th centuries, Afghanistan was seen as a buffer against Russian Imperial expansion towards India, then the “Jewel in the Crown” of the British empire.  Amidst thousands of skirmishes and small actions on the North West Frontier – the Pushtun tribal border area between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan, Britain fought three major wars in and against Afghanistan in pursuit of establishing pro-British regimes: 1839-42 saw a humiliating defeat, 1879-82 went little better and 1919 was perhaps a draw.  The notion of the British as historic invaders has formed a key platform for Taliban propaganda narratives in the 21st  The UK government and its armed forces (in particular its special forces) played a key role in the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001 and the British Army established the first ISAF command headquarters in December 2001 under General John McColl.  Britain has provided significant numbers of combat troops and also a large diplomatic effort and economic assistance for the reconstruction of the country, its armed forces and the establishment of a democratic government system.  Four hundred and fifty-six British military personnel (predominantly in Helmand province) were killed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014, when most British forces were withdrawn with the closing down of ISAF.[1]  British political, diplomatic and military assets remain in Afghanistan, albeit on a smaller scale but Britain should still be considered perhaps as second only to the Americans in terms of a desirable international target for the Taliban.[2]  The British Embassy is heavily defended and is in the “Green Zone” which includes most of the key foreign embassies, military bases and Afghan government ministries.


Any additional UK troops will become an automatic target for insurgent attacks – be it by the Taliban, Islamic State, the Haqqani Network or other smaller groups – whether are training in the field, resting in camps or being processed through Kabul.  The UK has spent much time and military effort on training Afghan security forces, with mixed results, see my report from 2012, here.

As the British government would say, British military commitments to Afghanistan are kept under constant review.  A couple of years ago I wrote this in response to another suggestion that British troops might deploy.

The Afghan government and security forces are clearly struggling this year with a perhaps more forceful than average Taliban “summer of hate”: Farah city briefly fell to the Taliban earlier this week (as ever, reporting is a little confused).  The Long War Journal reports that the Afghan MOD claim six other centres around the country are at risk.

[1] Farrell, T., Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001-2014’, (The Bodley Head: London, 2017).

[2] ‘Attack on British Council compound in Kabul kills 12’, BBC News, 19 Aug. 2011,


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