UK deaths in Afghanistan hit 256

More expected, Britain warns as offensive looms

A British soldier held onto the gun turret on a vehicle in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, yesterday. Britain has lost the same number of troops in Afghanistan as it did in the Falklands war. A British soldier held onto the gun turret on a vehicle in Lashkar Gah, Afghanistan, yesterday. Britain has lost the same number of troops in Afghanistan as it did in the Falklands war. (Baris Atayman/Reuters)
By Robert H. Reid
Associated Press / February 9, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Three British soldiers have died in southern Afghanistan, officials said yesterday, raising Britain’s death toll in the conflict to 256 - the number of Britons lost in the Falklands war of 1982.

Britain reached the milestone as British, American, and Afghan forces are preparing for a major attack on Marjah in Helmand Province, the biggest town in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control. Britain’s defense secretary has warned the British public to expect more casualties when the Marjah attack occurs.

US officials have said for weeks that they plan to attack Marjah, a center of the Taliban’s logistical and opium-smuggling network about 380 miles southwest of Kabul. But the date of the attack has been kept secret.

Thousands of Afghan soldiers and police will join US and NATO troops in the offensive, playing their biggest role in any joint operation of the war. The pending attack will be a crucial test for the NATO strategy of transferring more responsibility to the Afghans so foreign troops can go home.

Two soldiers from the Royal Scots Borderers were killed Sunday in an explosion near the Helmand district of Sangin, which is north of Marjah, the Ministry of Defense said.

A soldier working with a specialized bomb unit in Afghanistan was killed in an explosion. Lieutenant Colonel David Wakefield said in a statement yesterday the serviceman died in the Nad-e-Ali district of Afghanistan’s southern Helmand Province.

Britain’s losses in the Falklands occurred during a 73-day war to drive Argentine forces from the South Atlantic colony they had invaded to affirm their claim to the islands, which they call the Malvinas.

In London, Defense Secretary Bob Ainsworth warned that British casualties were a “very real risk’’ during the upcoming operation around Marjah, which has a population estimated at about 80,000.

“We have seen an intense, hard, and bloody period in Afghanistan but . . . it is imperative that we hold our resolve,’’ Ainsworth said after the deaths were disclosed.

US officials telegraphed their plans for Marjah in hopes that most of the estimated 400 to 1,000 Taliban fighters would leave the area, allowing NATO to reestablish Afghan government control there. The top US commander, General Stanley McChrystal, has said repeatedly that success in Afghanistan does not depend on killing Taliban fighters, but protecting Afghan civilians and winning their support.

But Afghan and US officials say there is little evidence that significant numbers of Taliban fighters or civilians have fled Marjah.

“The criminals, the drug dealers, they’re out of there,’’ said Lieutenant Colonel Brian Christmas, commander of the Third Battalion, Sixth Marines. “But the die-hards, they’re readying for a fight.’’

He said intelligence reports indicate weapons and ammunition are continuing to come into Marjah, although US troops have taken up position near the town. The Marines’ main forward position, Outpost Belleau Wood, lies about 7 miles north of Marjah, from which US 155-mm cannons have been firing flares toward the town at night.