Fast and furious with the Taliban
GERESHK, Helmand province - British Captain Jeff Lee takes pride in his battalion's ability to "get in, get out" of sticky situations.
On patrol, khaki-colored vehicles bristling with firepower, roll bars and camouflage netting recall the desert pirate esthetic of Mad Max movies. And they travel equally fast and loose, sacrificing extra heavy armor plates for mobility to battle Taliban militants in this remote province, one of the hardest to tame in Afghanistan.
"We're a light, mobile, fast-reacting force," said the veteran of counterinsurgency campaigns from Iraq to Northern Ireland, noting that only one of his men has been lost this year. "Get in, get out, and call in the air power to light the ground up if necessary."
But insurgents have adopted a similar approach to keep North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces on edge. After the bloody aftertaste of head-on confrontations across the southern provinces over the past year, they are increasingly shifting toward remote-detonated bombs, suicide attacks and other hit-and-run tactics in areas where they have regrouped. This reporter's first scheduled trip into Gereshk city was delayed by an early-morning suicide strike that killed two Afghan police officers at a bridge checkpoint.
Drugs are largely to blame. Gereshk sits next to the Helmand River, whose banks are straddled by two fertile strips of land where hardcore Taliban fighters, farmers and a troublesome combination of the two have dug in to protect their opium-poppy cash crop. The British have dubbed it the "Green Zone", but welcome they are not. World opium production in 2006 was 6,000 tonnes, 92% of which came from Afghanistan. In turn, most of Afghanistan's production comes from Helmand province.
"Just about every time we go into the area we engage [the Taliban]," said Lee. "Of course, the fighting tends to be most intense wherever opium cultivation is concentrated. You could say it's more like the 'Red Zone'."
Poring over a map at the British forward operating base 3 kilometers from the river, he said nearly every village on the banks of the river has a Taliban presence. With the opium-poppy harvest now over - and expected to exceed last year's record haul - hostilities have intensified from Gereshk up to the Sangin Valley, scene of fierce clashes in recent weeks.
NATO forces are trying to drive militants out of the valley to make improvements on the Kajaki Dam that could provide electricity for hundreds of thousands more Afghans, by far the biggest aid project the West has planned for the country. To do so, the road that runs parallel to the river must first be held to allow delivery of two massive transformers and a turbine for repairs.
"Clearing the valley has been one of our main objectives," said Lieutenant-Colonel Charlie Mayo, a spokesman for British forces in Helmand. "There are still sporadic attacks, and that's to be expected because [the Taliban] want this area as much as we do."
The British strategy in the south has been to push up the Green Zone and force militants to engage. Typically this plays out as a brief, heated gun battle with bands of four to eight militants who then recede into fields and adobe warrens, though officers say Taliban clusters appear to be swelling in some areas.
Lieutenant Aaron Browne, a platoon commander who regularly sweeps north, said that during one recent patrol his men were ambushed by more than two dozen foot-soldiers; a gun battle broke out and they quickly dispersed.
Like their compatriots fighting around the Kajaki Dam, he said, troops in the Gereshk region want to secure agricultural tracts to allow civil development teams to carry out projects such as irrigation ditches and wells. This has proved difficult even in areas where they have ousted the Taliban; faced with a skeptical population, holding the ground is another matter.
Lee insists British forces have a "powerful influence" over most of the upper Gereshk Valley, estimating that of 300 or so core Taliban fighters in his theater of operations, about 140 have been killed. However, he concedes that numbers are an "illusion", since insurgents have shown a deft capacity to "inflate and contract" when they are pressured.
An Afghan police guard at the sun-baked prison fort that commands a clear view of the Green Zone from the heart of Gereshk swore the Taliban are in control of the upper valley. What appear to be Taliban roam freely in plain view of Afghan and NATO security forces in the markets below, but for the time being a tense calm prevails.
Looking to hold the initiative, British officers held a shura (council) with community elders last month to determine what was needed most to win them over. A school was asked for, and soon built. Other projects, including a bus station and a city park, are in progress.
"They give us their grievances, and we remind them of what we've done," said Lee, also noting the refrigerated morgue his men have just installed in the local hospital. "The more they see they've got, the more likely they are to reject the Taliban. Gereshk is a success story."
But errant NATO air strikes continue to take their toll on Afghan civilians, undoing hard-earned public trust. Last Friday, another attack on suspected Taliban militants about 14km north of Gereshk killed nine women, three infants and a mullah, according to local authorities.
Civilians in the line of fire
This week, an agitated President Hamid Karzai reprimanded foreign troops for unnecessary civilian deaths, writes Najiba Ayubi from Kabul in a report by Inter Press Service in association with the The Killid Group.
As civilian deaths spiral in the widening conflict in Afghanistan, there is anger on the streets against the government and foreign forces. Anti-US and NATO protests have rocked Kabul, and the eastern and southern provinces.
While militants have killed 178 civilians in attacks, Western forces have killed 203, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Afghan and international officials.
Last week, public resentment erupted on the airwaves. An independent radio network stopped regular transmission to go live with a spontaneous, two-hour discussion after a suicide bomb in Kabul on June 17. At least 30 police instructors were killed when the bus taking them to work at the Kabul Police Academy exploded in front of the heavily fortified police headquarters.
Furious listeners who phoned Radio Killid, a station that broadcasts from Kabul and Herat, forced Karzai's spokesman to come on air to defend the government over the second attack on a police bus in Kabul this year.
"I blame the government of Karzai," said a caller who identified himself as Abdul Gulbahari. "I am a truck driver and have visited 31 provinces, including many of the districts. I see no positive changes in those provinces. The government has done nothing to solve the people's problems."
Afghan and foreign security forces have constantly claimed Kabul is safe from Taliban fighters seeking to topple the Karzai government. But successive suicide attacks have nailed the lie, according to political commentator, Dad Noorani.
"I think that security forces are unable to control the situation, including the US-led coalition and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces. And when attacks happen, the government loses people's confidence," said Noorani, a well-known Radio Killid journalist. "We have troops from so many nations ... in order to secure our country but insecurity increases day by day," he lamented over the radio.
Security has sharply deteriorated in Afghanistan since late 2004 when many US troops were evacuated to Iraq. A resurgent Taliban have made deadly strikes on government facilities including schools, and on foreign troops. The nearly daily attacks, which began in the southern provinces along the country's border with Pakistan, have spread to the east.
Civilians, increasingly, are caught between the warring sides.
Zia Syamak Herawi, the president's spokesman, defended Karzai. "The Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police and the National Directorate of Security, under the leadership of the president, are all trying their best to prevent such activities, but suicide attacks are a little hard to control, and after three years the incidents are on the rise," he told Radio Killid.
Jason Motlagh is deputy foreign editor at United Press International in Washington, DC. He has reported freelance from Saharan Africa, Asia and the Caribbean for various US and European news media.