British achieving gains against Taliban

The Baltimore Sun

SANGIN, Afghanistan -- The British army compound in a drug lord's former villa, with its sandbagged windows and lookout posts and shrapnel-scarred walls, is a reminder that until just a few weeks ago, Sangin was among the most dangerous towns in Afghanistan's most dangerous province, Helmand.

Since their arrival last spring in this lawless region of mountains and desert, British troops have lost 64 men in almost daily combat against a Taliban force second to none in size and ferocity in the country. The insurgents still control half the province, the most serious threat to Afghanistan's stability.

Yet despite the presence of thousands of Taliban fighters, and some tough fighting still ahead, British military commanders say they believe they have turned a significant corner. In recent months they have succeeded in pushing the Taliban back and keeping them out of a few strategic areas. At the same time, they say, popular support for the insurgents is eroding.

"We see it now as a threat that can be countered," said Maj. Hamish Bell, second in command of the British battalion deployed in northern Helmand.

The progress in Helmand is perhaps the most important anywhere in the country, military commanders say, given that the province has the largest concentration of insurgents and produces 42 percent of Afghanistan's opium crop, which has helped fuel the insurgency. If they can get Helmand right, they say, it could pave the way to broader progress.

But while Helmand shows what is possible in Afghanistan, commanders warn that a long, hard fight remains to win back territory from the Taliban, region by region, village by village, and success is not assured. Nearly six years into the war, a third of Afghanistan's provinces are in the grip of insurgents, a level far worse than it was from 2002 to 2005, the years immediately after the U.S.-led invasion, when the Taliban were toppled and forced across the border into Pakistan.

Provinces like Helmand, remote from the capital and relatively calm, were only secured by a light U.S. military presence, leaving them wide open when the Taliban chose to return.

In the other southern provinces, Kandahar and Uruzgan, the Taliban presence remains strong. Fighting the Taliban is like squeezing a balloon, commanders say: as insurgents are suppressed in one area, they emerge in another.

Military commanders say the progress in Helmand is an indication that NATO forces have found their stride since last year, when the Taliban staged a spectacular resurgence, taking advantage of the handover of southern provinces from U.S. commanders to an expanding NATO force.

As NATO forces have become better established and more numerous in southern Afghanistan, U.S. forces have been able to deploy more troops in the east. There, they are also reporting gains in some border areas. All of this has helped NATO forces take the offensive against the Taliban and gain local confidence.

What has made the difference here, the British say, is a shift in their tactics and a doubling of force numbers, to nearly 6,000 today, with more troops on the way.

When the British paratroopers first arrived in Helmand, President Hamid Karzai asked that they focus on saving small district centers from falling to the Taliban. Surrounded and cut off, the British came under attack up to seven times a day. They used artillery fire to clear an area just for supply helicopters to land.

Over the winter the British deployed mobile marine units to push the Taliban back from besieged district compounds and out of the town centers. In spring and summer, they staged sweeping operations, with help from U.S., Afghan, and small Danish and Estonian units.

In May they were able to push the Taliban out of the Sangin area. With three companies in the valley, they have since thwarted attempts by the insurgents to reinfiltrate.

"It's not over, but indications are that the uplift in forces and the more-offensive mind-set have been successful," said Maj. Dominic Biddick, 32, commander of Company A of the Royal Anglian Regiment, now based in Sangin. The British base, once virtually under siege, has not taken a single hit in a month, he said.

The British have now been able to focus on their original counterinsurgency plan, which was to create "inkblots," or secure zones, around the main towns, and gradually expand security outward. In this way they are starting reconstruction projects in the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, the town of Gereshk on the main road, and now Sangin.

Strategically located, Sangin, a rich agricultural town on the banks of the Helmand River, commands access to the north, where most of the Taliban are concentrated, and to the hydroelectric dam at Kajaki, a major U.S. development project.

The Taliban threat remains even in these secure zones. But Lt. Col. Stuart Carver, who commands the Battle Group North, said, "There aren't big groups of 50 Taliban roaming around town and taking over big parts of the town."

The strong British and Afghan security presence in Sangin has encouraged local Afghans to come forward with information on Taliban movements.

This year, the Taliban have lost ground and men, including some high-level commanders, and are struggling to find recruits among the local population, Carver said.

Wary of the ease with which the Taliban can reinfiltrate areas, the British are moving with care.

"We could deploy and clear the rest, but the danger is if we clear the Taliban out we create a vacuum," Biddick said. The Afghan government also needs to deploy more army and police to fill the vacuum, he added.

"This is setting the conditions 12 months in, and Afghanistan will be measured in decades, not years," the major said. "We realize it is just the tip of the iceberg."

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