Page last updated at 17:07 GMT, Tuesday, 5 April 2011 18:07 UK

Coalition forces in Helmand claim insurgents defeat

Watch Mark Urban's film on the security in Helmand in full

Mark Urban
BBC Newsnight

In the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province in Afghanistan, coalition forces are not declaring victory - but they are saying they have defeated the insurgents.

Remarks by the outgoing battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir, of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Regiment, are simply the most upbeat of a raft of recent statements emerging from the troubled Afghan province that suggest a corner has been turned.

Afghan National Police officer, Lt Gul Mohammed
Narcotics are like ammunition for the Taliban. If the production of narcotics ends, then the Taliban will end as well
Lt Gul Mohammed, Afghan National Police

Lt Col Weir contrasts the situation in the second week of October last year, when there were 77 "Sigacts" (significant acts of violence such as shootings or roadside bombs) against his battalion, soon after its arrival, with that of one week in mid-February when there were just four attacks.

The insurgents, he says, "have been defeated, and have been excluded" from the majority of Nad-e Ali district.

The commander's remarks follow recent optimism from Major General Richard Mills, the US Marine commander of Nato forces in south-west Afghanistan.

Outside the main insurgent provinces (Helmand and Kandahar) there has been some growth in violence, which is why the national picture does not show quite the same trend as that in those two centres of insurgency.

"Fighting season"

Visiting a pharmacy and market in Nad-e Ali

Of course there are many cautionary voices, including General David Petraeus, the Nato commander in Afghanistan, who told me in a recent interview that he prefers "under-promising and over-delivery", to overly optimistic declarations.

Many people point out that the so called "fighting season" is about to begin, and it is usually in May, once the spring opium harvest has happened, that combat really escalates in southern Afghanistan.

"Narcotics are like ammunition for the Taliban," Lt Gul Mohammed of the Afghan National Police told me. "If the production of narcotics ends, then the Taliban will end as well. The two go hand in hand."

But looking at the same period a year ago to get what might be called a "seasonally adjusted" picture of the violence shows how far things have improved.

Britain's 16 Air Assault Brigade has lost 18 men in the last six months killed by the enemy.

A year earlier, 11 Brigade lost 32 men while patrolling the same area, plus another 30 in the Sangin district, which has since been handed over to the US Marines.

The trend for seriously wounded soldiers is similar, I am told.

What has happened then, in central Helmand, is a significant fall in British casualties for the first time in years. It is important, but how has it come about?

Security posts

Lieutenant Colonel Colin Weir
Lt Col Weir believes a corner has been turned in terms of Nad-e Ali's security

One obvious point is that the number of troops put into this area has increased dramatically.

Early in 2008, one platoon of Scots, about 30 men, were the only British troops in the southern half of Nad-e Ali district, by early 2009 it was one company (about 120), at the same period in 2010 around 400, and now more than 1,000.

That is a 33-fold increase in Nato troops, to which must be added an increased Afghan contingent.

These soldiers have been used to establish numerous security posts in the area, where roads and irrigation canals create a grid pattern of settlement where holding key junctions allows you to dominate the area.

Operations by snipers and special forces meanwhile have been used to target the middle level leadership of the insurgency.

It is not yet clear whether this is successfully overwhelming the insurgent leadership or whether it will be able to regenerate from these attacks, as it has many times in the past.

So is Nato winning? Even Lt Col Weir, agrees that, "any defeat is, of course, a temporal [temporary] defeat if it is not followed up and the momentum kept up".

The risks are many.

The resumption of the fighting season will, almost certainly, see some kind of increase in attacks on British troops in Nad-e Ali. It is a question of how much of a rise it is though.

As for the longer term, many harbour serious doubts about the ability of the Afghan government and police to build on security there.

The district police have a woeful history of feuding with locals, drug use, and robbery. They are also 40% under strength.

So while operations may have become less risky for British soldiers, they are certainly not going to be easy.

Watch Mark Urban's film in full on Newsnight on Tuesday 5 April 2011 at 10.30pm on BBC Two and then afterwards on the BBC iPlayer and Newsnight website.

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