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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 July 2006, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Army attempts to combat Taleban
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kabul

Army vehicle
The Army is facing a level of warfare not seen since the Falklands
In a corner of the garden, gathered under a mulberry tree, a heated debate was going on between the governor of Helmand province and the local elders.

The 30 or so long beards and deeply lined faces were listening intently as he told them the Taleban could no longer be allowed free run of Sangin district and they were either with the government or against it.

"We have told them to stop fighting, but they don't care about us," one of the elders replied with a bony finger poking out at the governor.

"And if you don't care about us either we may as well leave our homes now." His voice was raised.

Watching and listening from the centre of the group, was a British colonel, Charlie Knaggs, the commander of the Helmand Task Force.

His forces had come to this small government compound a few days earlier after the Taleban had killed around 40 members of the Afghan security services and threatened to take over the headquarters.

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Scattered among the tall sunflowers and bedded into the lush, well-watered grass were mortar tubes and row after row of mortars ready to be fired in any direction.

It had been quiet since they arrived, but they were prepared.

The shura, or traditional meeting, broke up suddenly with an agreed period of three days thinking time before they would meet again.

It was the evening of the second day when two special forces soldiers were killed, and the most intense period of fighting British troops have experienced since they arrived in Afghanistan was underway.

The regular army did little in the way of close-contact fighting in the autumn of 2001 - in six months the Royal Marines didn't have a single engagement with the Taleban, but now they are facing a guerrilla campaign and the kind of warfare not really experienced since the Falklands.

The neighbouring Gareshk district has been quiet for two months, but as the sun was going down the British foot patrol came under fire.

Mortars and rocket propelled grenades landed nearby and round after round of machine gun fire fizzed over their heads - they were being ambushed on three sides.

Trying to win "hearts and minds" they had met local elders in a small rural village and had been "advised" of the best route out when their attackers struck.

For two hours they exchanged fire from the muddy irrigation ditches that gave them the only real cover in the open fields.

British sniper

The air support from Apache attack helicopters didn't come - they were already engaged fighting in Sangin.

The British sniper held his nerve against the Taleban fighters and did his job.

Somehow none of the British troops, or the journalists with them, were injured.

In just three days this week there were six battles across Helmand - and there were other smaller skirmishes.

The Taleban suffered a lot more fatalities, but their determination, persistence and tactical awareness has defined them as a formidable force and given the British commanders a lot to think about.

The mission was to help the government bring security and development to parts of the country ruled by drug barons, warlords and insurgents, but two months into the deployment the first of those is soaking up resources.

"They are very difficult times," Colonel Charlie Knaggs admitted.

"The first priority must be for security - everyone I speak to here says that the first priority is security. But we must make sure that security comes with governance and development."

Development

People in Sangin and across Helmand do help the Taleban fighters with food and shelter because they have little choice - they argue they cannot refuse them if there is no government structure or security to protect them.

"Until the people want security and help to produce it themselves it is very, very difficult to bring development and governance to them," Col Knaggs added.

The British troops in Helmand are not yet under the control of the Nato force, with its "different approach" from the American effort, not chasing down insurgents, but helping bring development hot on the heels of security.

But until the end of July they fall under command of the US-led coalition and therefore "Operation Mountain Thrust" which is actively tracking down Taleban fighters.

That appears to put their current mission objective in a confusing position.

The Taleban are more powerful than the government now - there are hundreds here with the latest weapons
Haji Mohammad Yaqoob
Teacher
Back in the garden of sunflowers and mortars the foot-soldiers of 3 Para lie in the shade behind boxes of rations and water after and exhausting morning in 50C heat simply securing the landing site for the governor and their colonel's three hour flying visit.

One of the elders at the shura, a teacher called Haji Mohammad Yaqoob, summed up the situation the Afghan government and the British troops are facing:

"The Taleban are more powerful than the government now - there are hundreds here with the latest weapons," he told me.

"They hide in people's homes and force them to give food. We were optimistic that the new government would build our schools, roads and clinics, but now we have lost hope. We are living in a dark shadow."




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