The bravest of the very brave

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THAT they made the supreme sacrifice in order to make Britain, and the world, a safer place offers scant consolation to the grieving loved ones of those six soldiers – including five troops from the 3rd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment – who were blown up by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Only those families who have, themselves, experienced such a loss can have any comprehension of this tragedy – one that, with a painful irony of timing, also saw the UK death toll exceed 400 since military operations began in 2001 following al-Qaida’s 9/11 assault on the United States.

On one of the blackest days in this Regiment’s distinguished history, its soldiers – and their families – can draw comfort from the many poignant tributes that included the battalion’s dark green flag flying at half-mast and the special prayers that were led by the Archbishop of York for the fallen, their families and, of course, all those heroic young men and women still fighting in Afghanistan.

These tributes extended, rightly, to the House of Commons where Prime Minister’s Questions was particularly sombre. Yet, while the political unity was powerful, it was also indicative of the way in which this operation has been handled that David Cameron had to remind the nation why British forces are still losing their lives more than a decade after the US and UK formed a coalition to overthrow the Taliban and capture Osama bin Laden.

One reason is how the war’s objectives repeatedly changed under Tony Blair, prompting many defence leaders to become sceptical about the mission and the lack of purpose, with Major General Sir Evelyn Webb-Carter – one of Yorkshire’s most senior military figures – telling this newspaper only yesterday that the impact of poor political leadership on the Armed Forces was akin to “lions being led by donkeys”. Hours later, these harsh words were even more prophetic.

Mr Cameron pointed to national security, and how it is in the West’s interests that Afghanistan is a safe haven from al-Qaida. He also attempted to reassure the nation that progress continues to be made – and that Afghan army will be properly equipped and trained by 2014 when the last British military personnel will be withdrawn.

However it is also understandable that there will be many people who now believe – like French Socialist Party presidential candidate Francois Hollande – that the retreat should be more immediate because it is futile to think that a lasting peace can be achieved in the next two years.

This week’s murders makes it even more difficult for Mr Cameron or William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, to argue that Afghanistan is more peaceful. It is not. Even before the accidental burning of copies of the Koran by American soldiers exacerbated the security situation still further, an insurgency – reputedly orchestrated by al-Qaida as part of its regrouping following bin Laden’s execution nearly a year ago; there’s evidence, from a string of attacks on the Allies in recent months to suggest the Afghan army has been infiltrated by terrorists intent of demolishing any hopes of a peaceful future.

The painful truth is that IEDs continue to extract a heavy toll – the latest victims had little chance, even though the Yorkshire battalion’s motto is “fortune favours the brave”. Emblematic of the courage that continues to be shown on foreign fields, the poignancy of these four words will not be lost on all those who knew the fallen – and a county that remains immensely proud of its military history. They were the bravest of the brave. And, while fortune did not favour them, they will never be forgotten.