Page last updated at 00:56 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Where does the Afghan war go now?

By Ian Pannell
Kabul Correspondent, BBC News

British marine and Afghan local
The marines are eyed with suspicion and distrust of foreigners runs deep

"It's not pretty but it is progress." That is the view from the top - the opinion of Lt Col Jim Morris, commander of 45 Commando, Royal Marines.

We spent nearly a week with him and his troops in the Sangin river valley, seeing for ourselves what progress has been made and where the war in Afghanistan goes from now.

Most of the marines deployed here were just children when this conflict began but seven years later and they are the ones going on patrol.

They are barely out of their teens but already they carry a battle-worn maturity far beyond their years - they are the face of Britain's ongoing war in Afghanistan.

The pre-patrol briefing warns of the dangers that lie in wait for the marines: "We have received a specific threat of a Taleban suicide bomber in the market."

A description of the attacker is read out - a beard, a black turban, teeth missing. It could be more than half the men who live and work right outside the gates of this base.

This area used to be the scene of ferocious pitched battles. These days the marines fight an enemy that is increasingly hard to see.

The risks are less apparent but no less treacherous - deadly roadside bombs or suicide attackers.

Uneasy silence

We moved out of the fortified base near Sangin town with Whisky Company, travelling by foot.

Every few minutes the patrol goes to ground, crouching or kneeling, weapons drawn, alert for danger.

An uneasy silence infects the town. Within minutes word has spread that the marines are coming. People stand to one side, business stops and vehicles know not to approach.

Many British troops have fought here and more than a few have lost their lives to try to make this town safer and prosperous.

A park has been built, a school is under construction, a mosque renovated and farmers are being helped to grow crops other than opium.

It should be enough to guarantee support, or at least acquiescence, but Sangin town still feels on edge.

'Too much fighting'

The marines are eyed with suspicion - distrust of foreigners runs deep and every time they walk through here, they face a significant risk of death.

As the patrol heads to the market, a van drives towards us. This one does not pull to one side or slow down.

45 Commando, Royal Marines
The marines' commanding officer says there is progress but admits it is slow

The marines move into position. One shouts and waves at the van but still it drives towards us. It is now under 50 metres away.

A warning shot is fired and the van finally stops. If it had been a suicide attack, many of the marines would have been seriously injured or worse.

"There is too much fighting," a young man in the market says. Afghanistan remains a divided country but this is one thing all can agree on - security trumps all.

They tell me that they do not feel safe, that there are too many bombs, too many guns. People are scared of the Taleban, who use violence and threats against them. But nor do they want foreign troops here.

What they want is for the government and the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take charge. That is what many members of the coalition want too.

Dearth of hope

We went on patrol with the ANA in the fields around Sangin. "The time is very near when we can keep our country secure without foreign forces," says Major Zargai.

He has certainly won the respect of his British counterparts and many local residents but there are still too few well-trained Afghan soldiers to be able to take the lead.

From London to Washington to Kabul, a debate is now under way about what success in Afghanistan will look like and who will achieve it.

Lt Col Morris says there is progress here but admits it is slow. As for "success", most agree that it will not necessarily be decided here in Helmand.

"The military will not be the solution - they will be part of the solution - and we're here to provide the security conditions for an eventual solution to take place," he says.

Expectations are now being lowered across the board and people talk dismissively about the grand vision for the future of Afghanistan as laid out at the Bonn Conference in 2001.

This was supposed to be "the good war", the one all could agree on, the one that it was possible to win.

Today there is little talk of democracy or equality or "winning the war", instead there is growing insecurity and corruption and "expectation management".

Seven years since the overthrow of the Taleban and there is a dearth of hope in Afghanistan.

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