Page last updated at 12:33 GMT, Monday, 28 July 2008 13:33 UK

Bazaar opens but progress slow in Sangin

By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, in Sangin

Artillery fire
Troops based in Sangin are regularly under fire in what is a volatile region

Two years ago British troops were fighting for their lives in the small Afghanistan town of Sangin, defending a compound next to the river which the Taleban were trying to overrun.

They dropped 500lb (227kg) bombs metres from their own gates and regularly used hand grenades, which says a lot about the close-quarter nature of the fighting.

Today Sangin bazaar is open - you can buy anything in the market - and as we walked down the main street with a patrol of British troops, locals were laying concrete by the road, improving the drains.

They took us to the mosque which is being renovated, the new school which is being built, and we saw police checkpoints being put up to help local security and keep the Taleban at bay.

But the school was badly constructed - it has already been rebuilt once and its roof needs to be redone - and it's unlikely to be open in six weeks when the new school year starts.

The bubble of security in Sangin doesn't stretch much further than the market, and the hard stares of the Afghan traders do not suggest Nato troops are winning hearts or minds.

While on patrol, we heard shooting over the hill - two US Marines were attacked and wounded and an Afghan girl was badly injured in the crossfire.

Maj Stuart McDonald

It's the routine right now - two or three times a day the camp or the patrols will be attacked

Maj Stuart McDonald

The day before, six British troops were injured, one seriously, when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb just south of the bazaar, and just a few miles both up and down the valley, the British bases established as buffers to protect the town centre are attacked every day - it's reminiscent of summer 2006.

We spent 24 hours in Forward Operating Base Inkerman, north of Sangin.

At sunset the camp came under rocket and mortar fire - a Taleban missile struck just metres outside the base and they were under attack from three side.

The next morning we were almost caught in a "friendly fire" incident which injured two soldiers when a faulty British mortar bomb landed short, and we left the day before dog handler Lance Corporal Kenneth Rowe was killed in an ambush and six other troops were injured.

"It's routine business," said Maj Stuart McDonald, from 3 Para. "For the last 10 to 14 days there has only been one patrol that has not been contacted. It's the routine right now - two or three times a day the camp or the patrols will be attacked."

'Absolute' security

Lt Col Joe O'Sullivan is the commander of 2 Para Battlegroup which is based in Sangin, and he admits progress is slow.

"There's a UK road map plan for this part of Helmand which has a series of objectives which roll out over a period of several years and at the moment our ambition is only to create security in a very small area in the centre of Sangin," he said.

"But that security is very much relative. It just needs to be good enough to allow the development and the institutions to grow - it's not absolute."

Following the road map plan is UK stabilisation officer John Moffat, who took us to meet the mayor of Sangin.

He's the big hope for improving local governance, but Sangin is a complex mishmash of different tribes, some of whom have blood feuds against each other.

Man for change?

The mayor is a tribal outsider here - just understanding and keeping up with the latest local rivalries or new disputes or new alliances is hard enough.

Trying to manage them to bring development and some kind of order is even harder.

A lot of emphasis is being put on one man and in such a complicated local political world how do you know you're backing the right man?

Sangin is not stable - it's a dangerous place where the daily risks are pot shots at the base, small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades, roadside bombs, booby traps and suicide bombers.

The troops are locked in a stalemate with the Taleban in the summer peak of the fighting season.

Plans to create a little bit of space and time are all very well, but when troops are being killed and injured almost daily you have to wonder how much time there is to see this through, before those back home start to think the cost as too high for the mission to continue.

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