WHY are our young men dying in Afghanistan? It is a question many are asking after this week’s tragedy which saw six soldiers die in a single explosion – three of them from Huddersfield.
The British death toll in Afghanistan has risen to 404 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 received the knock on the door they had been dreading, the end of the drawn-out war is in sight.
Prof Paul Rogers, the Huddersfield peace expert, believes the troops still have enormous public support.
The Kirkburton man, who works at the University of Bradford’s peace studies department, said: “There is angst and opposition to the war but nothing but support for the troops.
“The soldiers who are on the ground are held in high regard by the British public.
“The UK Government has made it clear our military presence in Afghanistan will end in 2014, although it is terribly difficult to say that in a week when we have seen young soldiers die.
“Essentially, British troops are there to support America. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, George Bush declared that the Taliban regime had to be terminated. Tony Blair was in full support and committed our troops to support the initiative.
“In the initial stages it looked as though the Taliban and Al Qaeda had been dispersed but the Afghan authorities were not sufficiently equipped to take on responsibilities and in 2006 the Taliban started coming back.
“Now my view is that there is no direct threat to Britain from Afghanistan. There are no Al Qaeda strongholds there and I believe the more serious threat comes from groups in West Pakistan.
“But the view is that Afghanistan must be sufficiently stabilised before the troops can come out completely.
“There will have to be a compromise and the Taliban will have a role in future government. Both the US and the UK have committed to withdrawal but it will not be rushed”.
The 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.
UK forces were first officially deployed to Afghanistan in November 2001, when Royal Marines helped secure Bagram airfield as part of the US-led invasion after the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in America.
Several thousand more troops followed but the human cost to the UK remained relatively low until a taskforce was sent to Helmand in spring 2006.
By the time the British military death toll in Iraq reached 100, in January 2006, there had only been five fatalities in Afghanistan.
Three months later then defence secretary John Reid said he would be “perfectly happy” if UK troops left Helmand three years later “without firing a shot”.
This proved to be a major misjudgement as the military became engaged in some of the fiercest fighting British forces had experienced since the Second World War.
Britain has suffered more deaths in Afghanistan than any other country apart from the US.
UK troops have been hit particularly hard because nearly all of them are based in Helmand, an insurgent stronghold and major centre of opium production which is the most dangerous province in the country.
There were 39 British deaths in the Afghan conflict in 2006, 42 in 2007, 51 in 2008, 108 in 2009, 103 in 2010 and 46 in 2011. The latest casualties, when confirmed, would bring the 2012 figure to 10.
By contrast 179 UK personnel died in Iraq between 2003 and 2009, and 255 died in the 1982 Falklands War.
Many thousands of Afghan civilians have also died since the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, although accurate figures are hard to come by.