Afghan military steps up to plate as West nears exit

THE British death toll in Afghanistan continues to rise as politicians and generals shift their focus to extricating UK forces from the troubled country.

More than a decade after Britain and the US launched military operations in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, the talk in the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon is of “transition” and “Afghan leadership”.

Afghan soldiers and police are increasingly taking the lead on operations, but UK troops serving in southern Helmand province still face dangers every time they leave their bases. As the latest families receive the knock on the door they had been dreading, the end of the drawn-out war is in sight.

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Afghans are due to assume full control for security across the country by the end of 2014, allowing the bulk of British and other Nato troops to return home.

But until then there will be more fighting and more improvised explosive device (IED) strikes as the Taliban tries to regain the momentum with an eye on the potential power vacuum once foreign forces pull out.

The bloodiest years for Britain in Afghanistan were 2009 and 2010, each of which saw more than 100 members of UK forces die.

In 2011 the death toll fell by about half as British troops withdrew from some of the most dangerous parts of Helmand and concentrated on building on gains from earlier major operations to take Taliban strongholds. The traditional summer “fighting season” was quieter last year, but Nato generals have warned that the insurgents will attempt to mount more attacks over the winter.

There are about 9,500 British troops still in Afghanistan, although Prime Minister David Cameron announced last July that this would be reduced by 500 by the end of 2012.

Over the past 18 months there have been a series of landmarks on the road towards a full withdrawal. Britain handed over Sangin in northern Helmand, where more than 100 UK troops died in four years of fighting, to the US marines in September 2010.

In a symbolic step, the Afghan army and police took over responsibility for security in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, in July last year.

In November Afghan president Hamid Karzai announced that control of Nad-e Ali in Helmand would also be passed from British command to local forces.

Nato commanders and political leaders have repeatedly stressed there will be no “rush for the exit” and that everything is being done to ensure Afghans are ready to assume full responsibility for security in 2014.

Concerns remain about the strength of the Taliban and corruption and incompetence among the Afghan army and police, but there is little appetite in the West for more lives and money to be expended on shoring up Mr Karzai’s unpopular regime.