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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 October 2006, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
Can change in Afghan tactics bring peace?
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan

British Army in Afghanistan
There has been a lull in attacks over the past weeks

The British forces in southern Afghanistan have finally had a change of tactics.

Ever since they were deployed into the small government compounds in Helmand's remote district centres they have been under fire and looking for a face-saving way out.

In Sangin, Now Zad and Musa Qala, the small deployments of men have been defending attack from all sides - rocket propelled grenades, small arms fire, mortars.

The enemy was underestimated and was a lot tougher, more determined and fearless than they expected.

It would launch "wave after wave of attack" to quote one commander, in the most intense fighting "since the Korean or even the Second World War" to quote another.

They went into these centres bowing to pressure from the governor, and because they could not be seen to be losing ground to the Taleban as they were deploying, but before they were up to full speed.

Peace deal

But tying up men defending these remote spots and having to keep them re-supplied stretched the resources they did not have. And they still don't have the manpower, or more importantly the air power, to operate this way as well as carrying out the mission as planned.

The idea was to focus on one central area - the "lozenge" they called it, up the Helmand river valley from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah to Gereshk.

If the ceasefire holds and the Taleban don't return there's a good chance Musa Qala will remain peaceful

They would secure that, work on winning the support of the people, bring in better governance and development and then spread out from there.

To do that needed the fixed support of the Afghan security forces and the mobile units of the British troops taking the offensive against the Taleban and keeping them at bay.

They were always going to have to pull out from these centres if the mission was going to have any chance of success, but it needed to be done in a way that wouldn't look as if the Taleban had driven them out - that they weren't retreating.

The deal with the Musa Qala tribal elders led, today, to the first stage of that way out.

Thirty five days ago a peace deal was stuck - the elders brokered a ceasefire between the British and the Taleban fighters.

'Tactical defeat'

After more discussions, the tribal elders have now provided a local police militia to secure the district compound and granted the British troops safe passage out - they even organised trucks to drive them into the desert to save helicopter lifts.

There has been a lull over the past weeks - there are still incidents every day, but nothing on the scale of July and August

The mortars, artillery and helicopters were not far away, but the operation passed off successfully - and without a shot being fired.

The questions still remain however - first whether the peace will be kept, or whether the Taleban will come straight back in, and as one officer put it, "run up the black flag" over the compound immediately.

Perhaps more important is who exactly these elders are - they will probably have a mixture of views as in any representative forum - but how much of a connection do they have with the Taleban?

Is this really bringing peace, or just returning to the status quo that existed before the British troops arrived? In other words is it simply taking Helmand back to where it was six months ago?

If the ceasefire holds and the Taleban don't return there's a good chance Musa Qala will remain peaceful - and if that happens it's a good model for other tribal elders in other districts devastated by the summer's fighting.

There has been a lull over the past weeks - there are still incidents every day, but nothing on the scale of July and August.

Commanders say this is due to a "tactical defeat" of the Taleban. Cynics say it is poppy planting season, Ramadan, and they're regrouping.

Whether the peace holds and whether there's more fighting before the winter sets in will be pivotal in showing just how much progress the Nato-led British force in Helmand really has made.

And that is just progress towards stopping the fighting, not completing a much more complicated mission.

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