A British bastion in the heart of Taliban territory

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Camp Bastion is being built in Helmand, the most dangerous part of this highly dangerous country. It is from this desolate spot that British operations against a resurgent Taliban and al-Qa'ida will be run.

"Please don't call it our Dien Bien Phu", said a senior officer, referring to the siege of French forces that brought their occupation of Vietnam to an end in 1954. But if the isolated British base in the heart of hostile country does turn into the same sort of debacle, it won't be because the British, unlike the French, made the mistake of underestimating their enemy.

When the Afghan war began Tony Blair said: "This time we will not walk away", as the West had done when it used and then abandoned Afghanistan following the conflict with the Russians.

Critics say that is precisely what he did by following President George Bush in shifting the focus of the "war on terror" from Afghanistan to overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

Now, five years later, the Taliban and their Islamist allies are back with a vengeance, carrying out suicide and roadside bombings, murdering aid workers, burning schools and beheading teachers for offering education to girls.

Just over a week ago US and Afghan government forces fought a pitched battle with more than 200 Muslim militants in Helmand and a squadron of RAF Harriers based at Kandahar have been in regular action against targets across southern Afghanistan.

"Man for man, the Americans consider this is now a more dangerous operation than Iraq - and obviously we are aware of the risks involved," said Lieutenant-Colonel Simon Winkworth, of the Royal Engineers. "We have taken all the measures necessary and we have our own way of doing things."

Camp Bastion will house 2,300 of the 5,700-strong British expeditionary force, including Royal Marines and paratroopers. It is adjacent to a camp, Sharabak, being built by the Americans for the Afghan army.

The aim of the joint force is to counter the flood of insurgents crossing the border from Pakistan - with the complicity, the Afghan government says, of elements within the Pakistani intelligence service - and drug lords who control 25 per cent of the opium crop in the country with the largest production of the narcotic in the world.

The British base is already a target. Afghan employees of foreign contractors working there are regularly abducted for ransom. So far this is being done by criminal gangs, but the Taliban have vowed to strike at the British presence and there is little doubt that there is extensive collusion between Islamist groups and gunmen in the area.

The US forces have concentrated on war fighting and made little attempt to establish contact with the locals. The British commanders are determined to do things differently and one of the first patrols in Lashkar Gar was on foot with soldiers wearing berets instead of helmets and chatting to shoppers and groups of children who had just finished school.

"We like the British because they have lots of guns," said Lal Mohammed, a 28-year-old mechanic, before hastily adding: "It will help them fight the bad men. It is also good that they are talking to us, there are a lot of people who say they are fighting for us, but they never listen to us."

The Americans? "We see them driving by sometimes, that is all."

Minutes later a US convoy roared through, mirror sunglass-wearing gunners sitting atop Humvees, scattering Afghan civilians and British troops in their path.

Ishmail Ali, a shopkeeper, said: "No country likes having foreign forces. When the war ended we expected to see a lot of improvements from America and Britain but that did not happen. But we do not want to see the Taliban either and if the British protect us then that would be good. There is a lot of trouble around here now, people are having their throats cut. They have destroyed schools, our girls are becoming scared to go back to their lessons."

More than 165 schools have been destroyed since the insurgent offensive began. Arzo Janmohammed, 12, goes to the local school and wants to be a doctor. A significant proportion of doctors and lawyers were women under the communist regime. "I like my lessons and I want to continue," she said. "But my mother and father do not know what to do."