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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 November 2005, 12:02 GMT
UK troops face new Afghan challenge

Andrew North
BBC News, Lashkar Gah, Helmand

UK forces in Helmand
UK troops will take over in Helmand by the end of March

A small and so far peaceful British invasion has begun in this remote corner of Afghanistan.

Preparations are in full swing for an ambitious UK military deployment next spring to what is the country's number one drugs producing region.

Several thousand soldiers and civilian advisers may end up being sent here in a plan aimed at strengthening President Hamid Karzai's government in this largely lawless province.

Some additional troops will come from other European countries.

Second coming

The hope is it will also revive failing British-led efforts to combat the illegal drugs trade in Afghanistan - the source for most of the world's supply of opium, which is used to make heroin.

All the money for the Taleban comes from the drugs traffic
Sher Mohammed Akhunzada, Helmand governor

Officially, the line in London is that no final decisions have been taken. On the ground though, the BBC was told the deployment is going ahead.

The small US force currently in the province has been told that the UK will take over by the end of March.

The American base on the edge of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, is known as a "provincial reconstruction team". It will become the British headquarters.

Growing numbers of British troops have been arriving, setting up communications links and drawing up plans for other bases.

Last weekend, the commander of the paratroop-led unit which will form the core of the force -16 Air Assault Brigade - flew in to inspect progress.

The last time a large British force came to this region of Afghanistan was in colonial times, in the 19th century.

But it ended in defeat for the British, at the 1880 battle of Maiwand in nearby Kandahar province.

Few people in Helmand are aware yet of the impending British influx.

But most of those the BBC spoke to said the troops would be welcome if they could improve life here.

"We need security, that's the first thing," said Haji Nasruddin, a shoe-seller in the main bazaar.

This time, British commanders will have another weapon to call on - the focus group.

Among the recent arrivals in Lashkar Gah has been a Ministry of Defence polling team assessing local attitudes and priorities.


When the BBC arrived at the base though, all the British personnel there were told not to talk about what was happening - on the orders they said of their political masters.

But from the activity on the ground and from talking to Afghan and international officials, the outlines of the plan are emerging.

The American base will become the British headquarters

Although the paratroopers will give the British force a serious punch, much of the emphasis will be on developing the capacity of the local Afghan government and security forces.

This will be key to tackling the drugs trade in the long term, officials say.

Troops at another base - known as Camp Ashton - will be given the task of training a brigade of 3,000 soldiers for the emerging Afghan National Army.

Police trainers will be working with Helmand's shaky 1,800-strong force.

Low salaries mean police are easily bribed by drugs traffickers.

Government officials here admit many of their own are involved in the drugs trade too.

Key issue

One dilemma for the British will be how closely to work with a local authority that many here regard as part of the problem.

Another key issue will be how aggressively soldiers pursue drugs traffickers - something that could well result in much more violence.

American troops patrol Helmand
For the past four years, the US-led coalition and the Nato force in Afghanistan have avoided such confrontations as a matter of policy.

For the US, its war on terror against the Taleban and al-Qaeda has taken priority. Nato has been focused on its peacekeeping role.

But there is pressure for the British to get tougher, including from Helmand's governor Sher Mohammed Akhunzada.

Here a war on drugs helps the war on terror, he argues.

"All the money for the Taleban comes from the drugs traffic," he says.

The governor also told the BBC he wanted British troops to patrol Helmand's open desert border with Pakistan.

There is currently no Afghan government presence there at all.

US troops do not go there either - one reason being that their vehicles often get stuck in the soft sands.

With all it is taking on in Helmand, the British military will have to be careful not to get bogged down too.

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