A country where every passer-by is a potential threat

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The Independent Online

For the soldiers fighting in Afghanistan life has become a lottery of roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

Gone are the days of pitched battles when squads of Taliban fighters would attack en masse and fight for ground. Back then, a soldier could fire and manoeuvre to survive. Now they take their chances against an enemy they rarely see – the homemade bomb – sometimes strapped to a fanatic's chest, more often simply buried in the desert to await its unknown victim.

The day Royal Marine Dale Gostick died, his patrol had fought off 15 insurgents who attacked their armoured vehicles with grenades and machine guns. What killed him was a roadside bomb. The lottery has left the men and women on the front line facing a threat that lurks hidden among the people they hope to win over. The Taliban may have failed to rout British forces but they have forced a wary distance between the soldiers and their prize.

When the British forces venture out on routine foot patrols, the fear of a suicide attack is palpable. Before leaving their Musa Qala base last week, soldiers were reminded to split their first aid kits between their left and right pockets in case one half of their body was blown off.

Afghans who come too near – whether adults in cars or walking teenagers – are screamed at to keep their distance. If that doesn't work, rifles are raised in warning. Even the locals understand the soldiers' fear. If a driver doesn't stop the moment he sees a British patrol his neighbours will berate him. They know how quickly shots are fired.

The troops from the First Royal Irish Regiment avoid walking through the main bazaar because there are too many potential assailants. "It would be too easy for a suicide bomber to get us," explains Colour Sergeant John Brennan. "There's so many people. You're just not 100 per cent in control."

They do eventually chat to some locals, but only after the Afghans have been frisked more than 50 metres away at a police check point. One of the soldiers, who speaks Pashtu, interviews residents about their priorities. But he must be brief because stationary troops are vulnerable to an attack.

It only takes a small team of Taliban to manufacture and place a bomb big enough to kill a British soldier. Even if security improves, the soldiers in Helmand know that the bombs lottery is likely go on for many years to come.