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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 May 2006, 14:34 GMT 15:34 UK
Fighting a strengthening Taleban
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Afghanistan

Taleban fighters
Taleban fighters are able to attack, then melt away into communities
Southern Afghanistan was the birthplace of the Taleban and over the past few months it seems the remnants of the former government are still determined to fight.

The attacks have taken the form of confrontations, like that seen in Helmand and Kandahar over the last 24 hours; suicide attacks - there were two on Thursday - or roadside bombs targeting military convoys.

There is no doubt the strength of the insurgents has been increasing and the thousands of British and international troops moving into the south of the country will have their hands full.

Just over the Pakistan border, north of Quetta and in Miram Shah - in fact throughout the border tribal belt beyond the control of any government - the Taleban and al-Qaeda have been growing in strength.

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They move with impunity across the border into Afghanistan and have cells throughout the south and east of the country.

The 2001 war was designed to destroy al-Qaeda and drive out the Taleban, but they were driven only as far as Pakistan. They are now returning and destabilising an already dangerous and lawless part of Afghanistan.

'Floating voters'

The Taleban fighters are still feared in villages across wide swathes of the country.

Even if they are not supported they are tolerated, and by attacking and then melting back into the population, they are a difficult enemy to fight for the coalition and Nato forces.

The British know they have a challenge on their hands in order to help bring security to a part of the country which has been out of government control since the war.

The way one high-level British commander described it was "trying to win the support of the floating voters", those who want to see stability and will support whichever side seems to be in the best position to provide it.

With opium poppy crops being eradicated and with little sign of development coming from the central government, the suggestion is that rural people could side with the insurgents.

But the Nato-led forces, which will be taking control of the southern region in the coming weeks, believe the extra troops will bring greater security, allowing reconstruction teams to move straight in behind them and provide the help and development people want.

There is great opportunity, but if the Taleban and other insurgents prevent the security situation from improving, Nato and the coalition's job becomes so much more difficult.

And then there is the issue of commitment.

Iraq factor

At the moment the Canadians, the British, the Dutch, and of course the Americans, are highly committed in terms of force numbers and the job in hand.

But the Canadian parliament only just approved an extension to their mission beyond next year - by the tiniest of majorities.

British soldiers from 21 Air Assault Battery Royal Artillery on routine patrol in Helmand province
The rise in attacks come as Nato boosts its troops in the country
The deaths of nine nationals already this year - including the first female soldier to die in combat since the end of World War II - has shaken the resolve at home.

If the casualty figures for Canadian, or other international forces, continues to rise, then individual countries may face tough decisions.

It is a long journey and the promises have been made, but it can be argued that had Iraq not come along so soon after the invasion of Afghanistan, the country would be far more stable and better off now.

And if thousands of troops had moved into the south two years ago, would they be facing as tough an enemy as it appears they will be taking on today?




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