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Last Updated: Monday, 17 July 2006, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Maintaining order in Afghanistan
By Alastair Leithead, in Helmand
BBC News

British soldier
British troops are fighting Taleban insurgents in Helmand

The fighting in southern Afghanistan has been fierce and unrelenting, with British soldiers not just repelling fire, but battling for their lives against a determined enemy.

Clashes have consistently raged for hours in the desert heat - the UK forces have used everything from air strikes and artillery shells to hand grenades.

Soldiers only use hand grenades when their enemy is just metres away.

Troops bombarded every night defending small government compounds in remote district centres rely on re-supply of not just food and water, but thousands of rounds of ammunition.

There is still a question mark over civilian casualties in the northern Helmand town of Nawzad, but British forces there have now destroyed a school and rocketed a hospital.

Sustained attacks

The British army spokesman said they had been fired upon from both buildings - BBC video footage of the wrecked school clearly shows sandbag positions on the roof and the ground floor.

The overused phrase "winning hearts and minds" is bandied about as a key objective, but bombing the infrastructure - the schools, hospitals, shops and houses is not going to win the support of local people
Alastair Leithead

He added that a heavy machine gun position was inside the hospital and the Afghan National Police had checked the building to ensure there were no patients or civilians inside before the helicopter strike was called in.

They have come under sustained attacks from all sides and have been fortunate not to suffer any serious casualties.

The overall mission in southern Afghanistan is first of all to help the government bring security back to these areas, and then hot on its heels to bring development and good governance.

But security is dominating everything at the moment, and the fighting could even be undermining the grand plan.

The overused phrase "winning hearts and minds" is bandied about as a key objective, but bombing the infrastructure - the schools, hospitals, shops and houses is not going to win the support of local people and it can only set back development plans.

And British troops are being lured into this kind of fighting by a Taleban militia who are hiding behind civilians and firing from important community buildings.

This can lead to civilian casualties, or at the very least make it difficult for the UK soldiers to fight effectively for fear of killing innocent people.

But it also serves the Taleban's purpose of creating a perception that British troops are here to destroy rather than help develop these towns and villages.

British soldier in Kabul
It is impossible to guarantee security, despite the troop presence

In another district, Sangin, where six British soldiers have been killed and where fighting was equally fierce, they have gone from being on the defensive to going very much on the offensive.

Hundreds of support troops were flown in as part of the biggest British military operation here since the fall of the Taleban almost five years ago.

Since they landed in the early hours of Saturday morning there has been just one rocket propelled grenade attack, compared to dozens over the previous days.

With the help of 700 American and Canadian coalition troops the British now say they have restricted movement so weapons and supplies cannot come in or out.

But the Taleban fighters are still openly operating inside Sangin town - a cameraman working for the BBC was detained by Taleban fighters in the centre of the bazaar the day after the British force went in.

Wishful thinking?

They are the first to admit how difficult it is to "secure" a town centre - Taleban fighters simply hide their guns and melt into the population.

Once the coalition forces are off guard, or pull out to "secure" somewhere else then the fighting may just start up again.

Even with thousands of soldiers it is not possible to guarantee security, but the aim is to bring enough stability to start winning the trust of local people and to slowly bring a positive government influence to bear.

The reinforcements who are on the way will help, but military commanders will be hoping the "peak" of fighting they predicted for the start of the deployment will be short-lived.

For now that would appear to be wishful thinking.

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