Page last updated at 14:58 GMT, Monday, 10 November 2008

Constant violence blocks Afghan progress

Patrolling in Sangin town
Civilians say they are caught in the middle of the conflict (Photos: Nick Tryon)

The BBC's Jill McGivering reports on the problems of sustaining development in the southern Afghan province of Helmand.

The military base at Sangin is heavily fortified and thickly coated with fine sand.

It sits to the west of the town, straddling the river, backed by dry barren hills.

The facilities are basic - pit latrines and rows of dun huts fashioned out of sand-filled hessian blocks.

The troops based here survive on a diet of high-carbohydrate rations supplemented with local fruit.

It feels like an old-fashioned lawless frontier.

British-led forces in Helmand only established the base last year, as part of a campaign to push north into Taleban-held territory.

Sangin is now named as a key urban centre in the long-term plan to make this region function again.

International programmes focus on supporting better local governance and developing basic services, from schools to hospitals.

But at the moment, these efforts to bring development are undermined by constant violence.

Limited access

On the second day of my visit, an American convoy arrived at the base to meet the local governor.

Soon after they left, they were ambushed by the Taleban, just south of Sangin, and for more than an hour the still, desert air echoed with gun-fire, light artillery and, finally, the deep boom of a 500lb (266kg) bomb.

Map of Afghanistan

It was the noisiest encounter I heard, but far from the only one.

The pattern of a "morning shoot", followed by a second eruption of violence in the mellow hours of late afternoon, just before the desert sunset, was considered routine.

So, in those circumstances, how can anyone deliver development?

There is no question that plans are being implemented and money being spent in the millions, but the work is dogged by constant challenges.

The insecurity means access is limited. I was able to leave the base just once, accompanied by about 30 heavily armed British Royal Marines.

Their patrol, taking me a kilometre (about half a mile) into Sangin town and back, took more than two hours, lengthened by their vigilance as we walked down eerily deserted streets and, in the bazaar where we did encounter people, by vehicle checks and body searches.

School risk

The town of Sangin is considered secured, but the villages all around are still heavily influenced by the Taleban.

Patrolling in Sangin town
Much of the market was closed down

Roadside bombs, suicide attacks, car bombs and drive-by shootings are daily realities.

On the patrol, I was taken to see a new high school, funded by the international community and now half-built.

Young boys and older men with greying beards half-heartedly mixed cement and worked iron rods as we walked through the site and were shown the skeleton of a 16 classroom building.

Here too, the biggest problem was lack of security, the local contractor told me.

His driver was recently kidnapped by the Taleban and he had to pay a large ransom to free him.

Then his loader was seized by the Taleban, and also had to be bought back.

There is a larger question, too, about how many parents will risk sending their children to the school when it does open.

At the moment, the Sangin district does not have a single school operating. The only education is in the form of informal home tutoring, for those who can afford it.

Last month, a newly refurbished junior school was opened, but had to close days later because of the violence in the area.

No customers

The only sign of life during our patrol was in the bazaar, and that was far from normal.

Patrolling in Sangin town#
Sangin is relatively secure but the Taleban are stronger in nearby villages

Many shops were shuttered. Some, selling meat, Afghan bread and household goods, were open but there were no customers.

I found one shopkeeper, Mohammed Umar, lolling on a carpet in the sunshine outside his store, listening to the radio. Why was it so quiet? His answer was simple: security.

"The Taleban come from that side and the international forces come from the other," he said, "and we civilians are caught in the middle.

"Just yesterday, I had to take shelter on the floor of the shop and a bullet passed about 6in (15cm) from my face."

The arrival of the international forces had not helped, he said, because it had just made the violence worse.

So would he rather have the Taleban back in control here?

He shrugged.

"I don't care who's in power," he said, "the Taleban or the international forces, just as long as they bring security."

The boys and men gathered around to listen nodded agreement. "Security is all that matters."

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