TUESDAY’S deadly Taleban attack on a Mastiff vehicle of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, has proved that the Afghan war is far from over.
For several weeks British army commanders have been pushing the message that our troops are no longer in the frontline and the burden of the war has passed to the Afghan army and police. Television coverage organised by the British army has shown the pulling down of patrol bases and the moving back to Camp Bastion, while the Afghans take over frontline roles.
The deaths of the three Scots soldiers earlier this week is stark evidence that British troops are still targets for the Taleban, even though the clock is ticking towards the final withdrawal.
Last week, the Taleban announced the launch of their “spring offensive” and they have been as good as their word. They are aiming to demonstrate they are far from defeated and can still inflict casualties on Nato troops. This serves the purpose of demoralising the poorly armed and equipped Afghan troops and helps give the impression that the Taleban drove out Nato of Afghanistan.
The Taleban plan to be ready to launch an all-out offensive to defeat the Kabul government once Nato combat troops have left the country next year.
For British troops this scenario means that the Taleban are clearly trying to ramp up their attacks as the withdrawal gathers momentum. They are taking advantage of the consolidation of British troops in Camp Bastion and a few other large bases. This has dramatically reduced the number of British patrols in the countryside, giving the Taleban the chance to concentrate their forces, stockpile arms and re-seed their improvised explosive devices (IEDs). With a declining number of British troops, this situation will get worse as the Taleban have more freedom of manoeuvre.
Particularly worrying for the British army is the fact that the Taleban were able to destroy a Mastiff and kill its crew. Since it was introduced in 2007, the Mastiff has proved a real life-saver and Tuesday’s victims were the first soldiers to die in one of the vehicles. Army technical experts are mounting a rapid investigation to determine if the vehicle was penetrated by a new type of warhead or if it fell victim to a huge bomb.
If the Taleban have a new deadly weapon then the armoured protection of British vehicles will have to be improved. The use of a large bomb buried under a road is equally worrying because it suggests they have the time and space to prepare the explosives at their leisure.
The hope is that the Afghan army will be able to step up to the plate and prevent this security vacuum emerging, but the evidence to date suggest it could be a very bloody summer.
• Tim Ripley is a defence analyst and commentator.