Thursday, January 28, 2010

Progress slow and messy in Afghanistan - BBC

By Ian Pannell, BBC News, in Helmand province, Afghanistan

t is six months since the guns of Operation Panther's Claw fell silent. It was the biggest British military operation last year and left 10 soldiers dead and many others seriously wounded.

The last time I was in Spin Majid, we were surrounded by hundreds of heavily-armed troops, in the midst of an intense and bloody battle to take a large swath of territory from the Taliban.

Danish tanks blasted insurgent hideouts, the air crackled with the sound of pitched gun battles, attack helicopters hovered overhead and, every few minutes, there was the nauseating blast of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) - bringing a brief but heavy pause to the march forward.

Today there is a school in Spin Majid; there is a new road, a clinic is being built and even a tiny market has opened that Regimental Sergeant Major Jon Sheard jokes is the local Whitewater shopping mall.

It is the centre of a battle for influence under way not just in Babaji district but across Afghanistan. It goes to the heart of the counter-insurgency strategy in the country.

But although the Taliban no longer have free rein here, they maintain an insidious presence.

Najibullah is one of the teachers at the school. He looks nervous as we arrive with a group of soldiers from the Coldstream Guards. It is their prize project in the district, one that must be made to succeed.

For now the school is housed in two yellowing tents while a permanent building is finished.

A few dozen small, raggedy children clutch colourful new textbooks and holler the words written in the local Pashto language on the blackboard. While the soldiers wait outside, the teacher reveals why he is so pensive.

"I will be honest with you, security is good and bad. The Taliban have threatened all of us.

"They say that if we run this school, they will do such terrible things that we cannot even imagine."

The parents have received the same threats and the empty desks are a testament to the insurgents' ability to wage a campaign of intimidation.

There should be 180 children at the school; today there are just 40. One teacher is absent because of a dispute over pay and the other turns out to be a policeman.

Winning and losing

Babaji district is home to the Coldstream Guards Battlegroup. They have made important steps forward here but as the school shows, they also face significant obstacles.

Like the Pied Piper of Babaji, Sgt Maj Sheard is shadowed by a trail of small children trotting along to keep up with him. "Salaam aleikum, sangay?" He asks how they are. The children are hoping for sweets and pens.

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