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Last Updated: Thursday, 20 April 2006, 15:08 GMT 16:08 UK
Afghan history's warning to UK troops

By Paul Danahar
BBC South Asia bureau editor

British soldier and Afghan man in Helmand
British troops start the battle for hearts and minds in Helmand

The British have made some disastrous decisions in Afghanistan - one led to one of the worst massacres in the UK's military history.

Next month the British army will make its biggest deployment in southern Afghanistan in more than a century.

The plan is to help the newly-formed Afghan National Army (ANA) fight the increasingly violent militant groups based around the Pakistan border and curb the drugs trade that funds them.

More than 3,000 British troops will be based in the southern province of Helmand which alone produces nearly 20% of the world's opium.

Tough job

Their ancestors packed up and left southern Afghanistan in 1881 after two disastrous wars.

Map of Afghanistan

The Afghan militants today don't outwardly look much different from their forefathers who picked off the British troops struggling down the snowbound passes after the first Anglo-Afghan war.

But today's British soldier is almost unrecognisable. Their leadership has been a lot more thoughtful about this new deployment than some of their predecessors.

The British troops will face a tough job patrolling southern Afghanistan.

The government in Kabul is grateful for international assistance. But it believes a lot more could and should have been done by now to stabilise Helmand and other provinces in the south which have always been the most troubled parts of the country.

Iraq diversion

Five years after being kicked out of Kabul, the fact that the Taleban aren't consigned to the dustbin of history is, critics say, an indictment of the failures of the international community.

Afghans believe the war in Iraq is the biggest reason.

The Taleban in Helmand have been promising the locals protection for their poppy fields against eradication in return for support with their attacks against western troops

The American resources that could have transformed Afghanistan and secured the whole country from a Taleban resurgence were instead diverted into toppling Saddam Hussein and then trying to deal with the terrible mess that followed.

Only a couple of hundred US troops were left in places like Helmand and they were focused on catching one man, Osama Bin Laden.

Special forces are trained to kill, and that's about it. In the south, what one Afghan described to me as their 'Shoot first and don't bother with the questions' approach alienated the local population.

British officials acknowledge privately that the Americans did little more than carry out raiding parties against the Taleban and al-Qaeda.

They left the locals to fend for themselves in one of the most lawless parts of the country.

The British troops are deploying in much larger numbers and with much more interest in winning hearts and minds.

And their political masters have already made what many see as a good start by refusing to move into Helmand until the worst examples of mis-governance in the province - by people like the former Governor Mullah Shermohammad Akhund - were ended.

Small groups

The newly-appointed governor of Helmand, Eng Daoud, is considered to be clean and against the drug trade.

The Taleban in Helmand have been promising the locals protection for their poppy fields against the poppy eradication programmes - in return for support for their attacks against Western troops.

British tank by poppy field
British forces by a Helmand poppy field

They are being led by a former Taleban education minister, Mullah Amir Khan Muttaqi.

They operate in small groups of 10 to 20 although they can collect up to 70 fighters for bigger attacks.

Maiwand district near the provincial border between Kandahar and Helmand is currently the stronghold of the insurgents.

Back in 1880, it was the place the British suffered their worst defeat of the second Anglo-Afghan war.

Today there are said to be between 300 to 500 militant fighters based there, including Pakistanis and Arabs.

They are headed by one Mullah Ghafar who is from the neighbouring Greshak district. He has his own force of up to 35 men.

He is allegedly in regular contact with the Iranian secret service via an Iranian-Baloch tribal family which is heavily involved in the opium trade.

Mr Ghafar is likely to be a threat to the British as they support Afghan troops eradicating the poppy crops.


There are also reports that Iranian-made heavy machine guns and rocket launchers have been delivered to militants in the region.

US forces in Helmand
The main US base in Helmand's capital was recently attacked by a suicide bomber

The Afghan government, though, says that the majority of the weapons the Taleban use are not from Iran but smuggled across the border from Pakistan.

Islamabad says it's doing all it can to try to pacify the area. But trying to tackle the rebellious armed factions living in the mountainous border has been a problem for generations of generals, Afghan, Pakistani and Western.

Even though Kabul accuses Pakistan of controlling the militant groups there's no doubt that these men are also causing all sorts of uncontrollable headaches for the Pakistani government.

And all sides are finding history to be the best teacher when it comes to today's conflicts.

In March 2004, several dozen Pakistani paramilitaries soldiers were killed in an ambush in South Waziristan, where Islamabad is trying to deal with its own insurgent groups.

Afterwards, a British diplomat politely suggested to the Pakistani military that they get a copy of old military manuals such as Report on Waziristan and its Tribes, left over from the days of the Empire.

Written at the end of the 19th century, they described how British army commanders lost men in exactly the same place, in exactly the same way, in attacks by exactly the same tribe.

The manuals then outline what the British did next time around to outwit the raiders and get their convoys through.

In many ways it's the mistakes and the lessons the British learnt over the centuries in this region that will, they hope, make the new deployment of UK troops better equipped than any other international force to deal with what follows.

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