British troops first went to Afghanistan in 2001 with the aim of toppling the Taliban government who had allowed the terrorist group al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a training base. They were successful in removing the Taliban government from power but the Taliban soldiers are still in Afghanistan and fighting to get power again. The UK’s main objectives are to develop a stable and democratic Afghanistan which is able to maintain its own security and prevent the return of al-Qaeda. In November 2010 David Cameron stated that our combat forces will be out of Afghanistan by 2015.
There are currently 140,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan who are there to support Kabul's Western-backed government against the Taliban. 9,500 of these are British. Troops are deployed all over Afghanistan but most of the fighting takes place in the southern province of Helmand, which is a Taliban stronghold.
Most of the troops are part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). This was established by the UN in December 2001 and currently has about 130,000 troops. As well as trying to bring about security and development to Afghanistan, troops are also there to train the Afghan army and police force so that they will be ready to take over responsibility for security once foreign troops leave.
In 2006 NATO decided to dramatically increase the number of troops it sent to Afghanistan. They hoped that this would get rid of the Taliban more swiftly and effectively. This tactic has been successful in destroying the Taliban’s ability to fight and has provided extra protection for civilians. However, violence is still widespread and the Taliban have continued to steadily increase their influence across the country. Al-Qaeda also remains strong and determined, regularly launching attacks against foreign forces.
As of 1st January 2011, a total of 349 British men and women have died whilst serving in Afghanistan since October 2001. The UN reports that the number of Afghan civilians killed as a result of the armed conflict is rising. Attacks by the Taliban are also on the rise with the number of roadside bombings in 2010 increasing to nearly double that of 2009.
Q&A: Foreign forces in Afghanistan
There is debate about whether the Afghan army and police are ready to take over the security of their country once foreign forces begin to leave in 2014. There are reports that desertion, illiteracy and drug abuse are common problems within the Afghan police and army, and worries that the Afghan police are not trusted by the local people. Will they be able to prevent the Taliban from returning to power, and will Afghanistan be politically stable once foreign forces leave? Is Afghanistan a safer place now thanks to foreign troops?
Local opinions on Afghan forces taking over from NATO
Challenges ahead for Afghan security forces