Eight years after the Taleban were toppled from power, with hundreds of millions of pounds spent and more than 150 British lives lost in trying to defeat them, they still have a pervasive influence in the heartlands of Helmand province in Afghanistan.
According to the commander of British forces in the province, about 40 per cent of the most densely populated central region of the Afghan province remains under their sway.
Brigadier Tim Radford, commander of the 8,300-strong 19 Light Brigade, told The Times that although the Taleban do not necessarily control the ground in these areas of Helmand they have a presence sufficient to intimidate the local people.
Brigadier Radford’s strategy is to squeeze the Taleban out of the most populated central belt of Helmand, which includes Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, Nad-e Ali, about 19 miles northwest, and Gereshk.
After two operations designed to clear these areas, the first by The Royal Marines codenamed Sond Chara in December, and the latter more recently by troops under Brigadier Radford’s command combined with the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), they have succeeded in pushing the enemy just a few miles north of the provincial capital. Soldiers from the Afghan National Army now hold the ground to prevent the insurgents from returning.
The British commander says that intelligence shows the Taleban’s strategy continues to be to threaten the provincial capital, and Allied efforts to turn it into a thriving city. He expects a “spike in violence” in the summer.
Donations from Britain and cash from USAID have funded extensive development projects here, including Lashkar Gah’s first civilian airport, a provincial courthouse, roads and street lighting, a new office for Alhaj Gulab Mangal, the Helmand Governor, and the experimental Bolon Farm complex, where farmers are shown alternatives to growing poppies.
Mr Mangal said that the Government’s counter-narcotics strategy was working. He said: “Mullahs are telling everyone that growing poppy crops is against Islam and we’re using the media to spread the message.
We’re also distributing wheat seeds to farmers. Some people don’t follow the government rules and still grow poppy, but cultivation has been reduced.”
Over the next few weeks 10,000 US Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade will arrive in southern Afghanistan and Brigadier Radford is working with them to draw up a plan to safeguard the construction work.
The British commander of Task Force Helmand will also have an extra 700 troops for four months to provide additional security for the presidential elections on August 20. He will be able to make use of the reinforcements only until the end of October, by which time his brigade’s tour will be over.
He will be in the unique position of having 9,000 British troops under his command. His successor will have to make do with the pre-surge 8,300, after Gordon Brown’s decision to reject the military option favoured by the Service chiefs to send another 2,000 troops to raise the total to 10,000. Brigadier Radford plans to divert 700 British troops from the south of the province, where they are currently based, to the central belt to boost the manpower in this key area.