Threat of Helmand's deadly roadside bombs is not going away

Bill Neely

Former International Editor

The Mastiff armoured vehicles were deployed in Afghanistan in 2009. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Archive

The deaths of three British soldiers in one incident in Afghanistan still has the power to shock us. And yet it is no surprise.

Helmand Province, where nearly all British troops operate, is still the most deadly part of Afghanistan.

British troops are not engaged in the kind of front line fighting that marked their early years there, but that doesn't mean they are immune to all the risks of being a foreign army on Muslim soil.

On Saturday, the Taliban announced the start of their "Spring Offensive". This is nothing new, merely a reflection of the availability of more men, after harvest time and a hard winter, to fight coalition troops. It has become as traditional as the harvest itself.

And it is usually followed by a spike in violence. Last year the announcement of the offensive was followed by several highly organised and deadly attacks in Kabul.

So three more young men are paying what David Cameron calls "a very high price" for Britain's involvement in Afghanistan.

British and American troops are beginning to withdraw but this attack has nothing to do with a vulnerable force drawing down and looking over its shoulder as it leaves.

Nor has the death got anything to do with the vehicle they were in. I've travelled in a Mastiff. It is just about the most heavily protected vehicle in the British Army.

It has a V-shaped hull to deflect a bomb exploding directly underneath it. Its hull is heavily reinforced and the seats are designed to absorb pressure from outside.

The roadside bomb blast occurred during a routine patrol in Nahr-e Saraj district in Helmand Province. Credit: Google Maps

But this bomb appears to have been so massive that the Mastiff was blown up into the air and may even have flipped as it hit the ground.

All of those inside were either killed or injured. The Ministry of Defence won't say how seriously injured the other soldiers are. Nine Afghans are also reported to have been killed in the blast.

Ironically the troops were on a patrol searching for IEDs (improvised explosive devices) when they were hit by one. It appears to have been planted next to and underneath the edge of a tarmac road, a main artery through the province, near the capital Lashkar Gah.

The deaths come after months of relatively few casualties. Only three men have been killed this year. It is eight months since any were lost to roadside bombs. Last year's death toll, of 44 British troops killed, was the lowest for five years.

Bomb disposal teams, pictured above in training at Camp Bastion, face daily danger in Helmand Province's minefield territory. Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

But let's not kid ourselves. Afghanistan is a minefield, literally.

There is no military solution, no military victory Britain can claim. There is little sign of a political solution between President Karzai's government and the Taliban who want to see him dead.

The Ministry of Defence said after the soldiers' deaths that "security in Helmand is steadily improving". That is very much up for debate.

The second part of the statement said simply that the latest casualties "underline the threat faced by our personnel".

That is factual. The threat is not going away. These deaths are unlikely to be the last.