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Last Updated: Monday, 31 July 2006, 21:47 GMT 22:47 UK
Tough task ahead for Nato troops
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Kandahar

The shaky video footage shows British troops making a hard landing in their Chinook helicopter. You hear the drama, rather than see it.

The Kandahar ceremony in which responsibility was handed over the Nato troops
The Nato force in the south will consist of 8,000 soldiers

It is pitch black - even the night vision does not pick up the landing as two rocket propelled grenades fizz past the helicopter.

There is the sound of gunfire all around as the troops fan out on the ground, the infrared lights on the backs of their helmets picked up on the grainy, green camera image.

Air support comes - rockets and high calibre machine gunfire.

It is a major operation to hit known Taleban compounds and try to secure a town where a small British unit has been bombarded for weeks.

Taleban stronghold

The combat camera team's record of the landing shows the dangers the British forces are under as they try to bring security to Sangin district - one of the hotspots of the fighting in Helmand province.

Their tactics will remain broadly the same, even though Nato's approach is very different to the coalition's policy over the five years since the war

Since the operation, the town has been quieter. There have been a few hit and run attacks, but nothing sustained - or on the scale of the previous weeks when six British soldiers died in the district.

In the last few days they have carried out a similar operation in Nawzad, another Taleban stronghold which has been at the centre of fighting.

Here British Ghurkas held the small government compound from fierce attack for more than three weeks - at times using hand grenades and calling in air strikes as the militants were pushing so close.

New approach

For the last few weeks these British troops have been under the umbrella of the American-led coalition.

But now it is Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), headed by British Lt Gen David Richards, that controls six southern Afghan provinces.

British soldiers in Helmand
Troops face the challenge of identifying insurgents

The build-up of troops in the south has been part of the Nato expansion - moving in gradually so as to make for a smooth handover.

Their tactics will remain broadly the same, even though Nato's approach is very different to the coalition's policy over the five years since the war.

The US-led mission across much of southern Afghanistan has been counter-terrorism, searching out Taleban leaders and fighters.

But with the raising of the Isaf flag over Kandahar airfield on Monday, thousands more international soldiers and aircraft are now on a mission to help the government of Afghanistan to bring the remote and lawless parts of the country under its control.

It is about security first, but it is also about winning the support of the people by bringing improved governance and development hot on the heels of the fleeing Taleban fighters.

Or at least that is the idea.

Different tactics

While the towns the British troops have "secured" are quiet for now, it is difficult to know if the Taleban have really been battled into submission, or if they have hidden away their guns, blended back into the civilian population and are waiting to begin their campaign again at a later stage.

It is incredibly difficult to know who is a militant and who is not, if they are not pointing a gun at the international forces.

Poppy patrol in Helmand
A huge percentage of opium poppies are grown in the south

In Helmand the tactic has been large-scale fighting. In Kandahar it is more of an insurgency, using suicide bombers or explosive devices left by the side of the road to target international troops.

In other provinces the status quo is yet to be broken.

In Uruzgan, it is the Dutch and Australians who will have to go through the process of pushing out into militant strongholds - something that has already cost the British, Canadian and American commands here a number of lives.

The Nato force will have to overcome the insurgency on all levels if it to bring the security which it believes will win over the people, persuade them to reject the Taleban fighters and accept a rule of law laid down from Kabul.

In provinces where a huge percentage of Afghanistan's opium poppies are grown and where warlords have had the run of the place for years and enjoy the insecurity, it will not be easy.

The fighting captured on the grainy night-vision cameras will continue. Only when security is improved will Nato commanders be able to start the longer-term, more crucial part of the mission.

It will not be easy, and for the reputation of Nato, its 36 partner nations, and for the "war on terror" it is a mission it cannot afford to fail.






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