Tension between British and American commanders in southern Afghanistan erupted into the open yesterday as a senior UK military officer said he had asked the US to withdraw its special forces from a volatile area that was crucial in the battle against the Taliban.
British and Nato defence officials have consistently expressed concern about US tactics, notably air strikes, which kill civilians, sabotaging the battle for “hearts and minds” and infuriating Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president.
Unnamed British officers were quoted yesterday as saying the US had caused the lion’s share of casualties in their area and that after 18 months of heavy fighting since British forces arrived in Helmand they were finally making headway in securing key areas, but were now trying to win back support from people whose lives had been devastated by bombing.
The newspaper estimated the number of civilian casualties this year in Helmand at close to 300 – most caused by foreign and Afghan forces, not the Taliban. Human rights and aid groups estimate that 230 Afghan civilians were killed throughout the south of the country last year.
Nato officers admit they are troubled by the high toll. One medic told the Guardian that during a 14-day period last month, British soldiers rescued 30 Afghan civilians wounded in bombings or firefights – half of whom were children.
British officers say US special forces are cavalier in their approach to the civilian population. The tensions were illustrated by an incident the Guardian witnessed in Sangin earlier this summer.
A British patrol was abandoned by its American special forces escort in the town for several hours. Stranded in central Sangin, British officers tried to establish radio contact with the Americans, who had disappeared without warning, and swore impatiently when they could not.
The British criticisms intensified after the Americans led them to their proposed site for a new Afghan patrol base in the town – beside a graveyard and a religious shrine. “Sensitivity is not their strong suit,” said one British officer.
Most British soldiers work well with regular American troops and some speak admiringly of them. But US special forces units are a different matter.
They operate under a different chain of command, with their own rules on everything from dress code to the use of weapons. Whereas the British troops operate under Nato command, the American special forces are commanded from the US-led coalition in Bagram airbase outside Kabul. That means the Americans can call on a wider range of airstrikes, and also that British officers have little control over which munitions are dropped in populated areas.
The British military spokesman in Helmand, Lt Col Charlie Mayo, said the special forces had supported seven British-led operations in Helmand since last April. He said that relations between the two sides were “excellent”.
“To work together effectively we have to have bloody good cooperation and we have to mutually support each other,” he said. Col Mayo stressed that the British commander who had a problem with special forces had requested them to leave Sangin town only, not all of Helmand.