Saturday, January 16, 2010

Winning confidence of Afghans who fear the Taleban will be tough

Picture: Maj Paul Smyth
Jerome Starkey in Babaji for the Times

The Taleban may not be strong enough to hoist their flag over central Helmand but they can still raise a radio mast. There are two of them in Babaji.

Just a mile and a half south of the nearest British Army outpost, the slender antennas on top of a muddy mound are rare landmarks in a battle for influence that lacks any front lines.

Made from bamboo canes crudely lashed together, the masts mark the edge of a modest security bubble that British and allied Afghan troops are trying to push outwards from their patrol base in the midst of Helmand’s farming heartland. The tips of the antennas tower 30m over the fields. They first appeared on Boxing Day.

For the farmers and their families who forge a meagre living tilling opium poppies and wheat, they are a constant reminder of the competing claims for their allegiance.

“The Taleban will beat me for talking to the infidels,” Mir Ahmad told British soldiers on patrol a few hundred metres from the mound that they call Re-Bro Hill. His two young sons clasped radios and sweets that the British troops had given them, but Mir Ahmad was anxious to leave. “When the Taleban come here it’s not one or two guys, it’s groups of five or six,” he said.

The soldiers and insurgents are in direct competition for the support of men such as Mir Ahmad, but neither group is strong enough to have a permanent presence in his mud-walled hamlet. “The Taleban say you are infidels and you don’t care about our religion,” he said. “They say it’s a holy war.”

Back towards the patrol base, the Coldstream Guards have paid to refurbish a mosque, a simple single-storey building without a minaret, with new carpets and loudhailers to counter Taleban propaganda and to build relations with local elders.

Farther afield though, in the shadow of the antennas, development is virtually non-existent. “You promised us help many times, but we didn’t see anything,” said Wali Jan, a farmer in his fifties. “We don’t want money, we just want security. The Taleban can come here whenever they want. If they see us talking to you they will kill us.”

What happens in Babaji and the neighbouring districts is likely to reflect the success or failure of Nato’s new counter-insurgency strategy in southern Afghanistan.

The area is one of five heavily populated districts in central Helmand identified as Nato’s “main effort”. British troops cleared the bulk of the insurgents during Operation Panther’s Claw last summer. They built four patrol bases in Babaji and are building a major road to connect the bases and make it easier for farmers to get their crops to market. But the protection they can offer to local people decreases with each step that they travel away from their camp gates.

“If the Taleban were here and asked me if I support them of course I would say yes,” Wali Jan said. The soldiers chatted to him for 20 minutes. He said that he had not seen the Taleban for at least two days — but, as we were about to find out, they were close by.

Babaji’s hand-tilled fields are criss-crossed with chest-deep irrigation ditches and are often flanked by trees. When the wheat was high, insurgents could sneak up on patrols, often ambushing them from 30 or 40m away. Today, spring seedlings are just beginning to turn the plots green. It is much harder for the insurgents to get so close; nevertheless it is difficult to project power.

“At the moment, the geography you can exert yourself over tends to be limited by how far you can go out in a day, with all your kit, and get back," Major Crossen, the battle group Chief of Staff, said. “We’re constrained by the numbers of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.”

Commanders say that the “mass of soldiers” is the key to success. The bulk of the Coldstream Guards battle group, roughly 500 men, plus around 250 Afghan forces and their British mentors from the 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, are working to control an area roughly seven miles long and five miles wide that is home to around 55,000 people.

The long-term solution, officers insist, lies in building up this number by adding to the Afghan forces with whom they are currently patrolling.

Click here for the rest of the report on the Timesonline

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