THE mounting death toll of British military personnel in Afghanistan makes uncomfortable reading, particularly for those with family members stationed in that hell hole.

They must view each item of news concerning casualties with increasing dread, praying they will not be the ones to get the terrible news that their son/husband/partner will be returning to the UK in a coffin.

People who enlist in the armed forces must expect at some time in their career to be on active service, which could entail being bombed, shelled, shot at or possibly all three. However, the campaign in Afghanistan involves facing the permanent threat of improvised explosive devices and roadside bombs, which the Taliban seem particularly adept at using.

God alone knows why, but Afghanistan has been the subject of military conflicts for centuries and, as far as I am aware, no one has yet succeeded in conquering and colonising that particularly hostile region. One military historian, whose opinion was publicised at the start of the current campaign against the Taliban, said Britain was being dragged into an unwinnable war. He may have been thinking about the 16,500-strong Anglo-Indian force under Lord Auckland, massacred while retreating from Kabul, the country’s capital, in January, 1842, or, much more recently, the humiliating withdrawal of the Red Army after their failure to subdue the fierce Afghan tribesmen, known as the mujahideen.

However, much of the events during that period in history, which became known as “Russia’s Vietnam”, can be directly attributed to the intervention of Democratic Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who, with rebel CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, launched a multi-million dollar covert operation to supply the Afghans with munitions needed to destroy Soviet helicopter gunships and heavy fighting vehicles.

The way that turnaround was effected, and the unlikely military defeat of the Red Army, is chronicled in the 2007 Hollywood epic, Charlie Wilson’s War. It is ironic that America’s involvement in the end of Russia’s occupation did not produce a positive result for the West. Wilson has expressed regret that he didn’t push the United States to help the Afghans rebuild their country. Abdicating responsibility for post-war economic aid may well have led to a power vacuum, which saw Osama bin Laden and the Taliban emerge as dominant players, and the unpalatable truth that American weaponry wound up in Taliban hands.

I recently read an opinion piece by former Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown, in which he stressed that British forces had to stay in Afghanistan until the Taliban threat had been removed. The stark message was that if we cut our losses and ran, the resultant impact on the region would be disastrous, with Pakistan, a nuclear state, seemingly certain to fall to Islamic radicals.

Lord Ashdown, a former Royal Marines Commando, knows what it feels like to be bombed, shelled and shot at, so I respect his judgement. But then I haven’t got a family member serving in Afghanistan. I wonder if the parents, wives and partners who have, believe the sacrifices of their loved ones are worthwhile.