A picture of peace in Afghanistan – but have the Taliban gone for good?

As the transition process gathers pace, Kim Sengupta reports from Nad-e Ali, Helmand

Nad-e Ali

Shafts of sunlight spray through the bullet holes pitting the front of patrol base Blue 25, lighting up the palm prints of dried blood on the flaking white walls. The murals, commemorating the five British soldiers murdered in this building, are fading away. Apple blossoms float through a hole in the roof blasted by a mortar round.

These are reminders of what made the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province a poignant landmark for British troops: most numbers killed in one attack; the most senior officer to die since the Falklands War; five members of the Grenadier Guards battlegroup killed by an Afghan they were training at Blue 25; three Gurkhas shot dead, one while he was asleep by another Afghan “comrade”.

Nad-e Ali, however, is now deemed safe enough for security control to be handed over to the Afghan government, as a key part of the West’s disengagement from the long and costly war.

This follows the “transition” of metropolitan Lashkar Gah, the Helmand capital, two weeks ago, a city which had been relatively peaceful in the current conflict. Last weekend a suicide bomber killed 11 people there, including a child. Getting things wrong in Nad-e Ali, straddling the strategic centre of Helmand, would have severe consequences.

Outside the razor wire sealing off Blue 25, a mobile broadcast system used for public information was belting out, instead, “A Message to you Rudi” by The Specials, as a group of Gurkha soldiers and Afghan police joined local traders and a gaggle of boys in clearing rubbish from the banks of a canal.

This was a small scale effort, but British officials insist that the security situation in Nad-e Ali has been transformed. Eighteen months ago, Shawqat, the headquarters for UK forces in the area, was coming under regular insurgent attacks. Troops were engaged in fire fights 300 metres from the front gate of the base. The Taliban ruled the town during the night.

“Now, we haven’t had any attack of significance for the last three months. We have a system of governance in place, and the Afghan police who are doing a terrific job. The place has been transformed,” said Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Lee, commanding officer of 45 Commando Royal Marines. “This has been due to a lot of efforts put in by others [UK units] which have been here, and it is now bearing fruit.”

Brigadier Ed Davis, commander of Task Force Helmand, mused: “Why is the number of attacks down near 45 per cent this year compared to last year’s fighting season? It’s that, over the winter in particular, we have removed, killed or captured a large percentage, approaching 50 of the mid-level insurgent commanders, and this

has really fractured their command and control. And the ones we didn’t kill or capture, quite a few of them have gone back into Pakistan, or gone up into some of the ungoverned space right up north of Helmand.”

Evidence of the scale of the “decapitation” campaign on the Taliban came at an insurgent base at Nahr-e-Saraj on the route north. There, in the mud-baked rooms behind 9ft walls, amid the weapons and explosives, lay a jihadist banner of tattered white cloth with Koranic slogans, and, underneath that, a list of martyrs: 25 names, around 40 per cent of the fighting strength in the area.

The complex also held, however, caches of bomb-making equipment, and, in some parts of northern Nad-e Ali, the number of IED (improvised explosive device) attacks has gone up by 100 per cent. The reason for this may well be that the insurgents are bereft of mid-level leadership enabling them to carry out complex operations. It is also the case that the roadside bomb, which needs on average less than $5 worth of ingredients, is a highly cost-effective weapon for maiming and killing.

But, in the town of Char-e-Anjir, near the British base, people point out that the Taliban have not gone away.

“They are not as confident as they were; they are more cautious where they are seen, who they talk to, who they trust”, said Mohammed Arif, who had brought his son to the local school.

“But it is a foolish man who thinks they have all fled. You only have to go 30km north from here and you will see them with their guns. And they also have some support from people who have never received any kind of help from the government and believe foreign troops are here to occupy their country.

“But it is true that the places are now safer. In the past I feared the Taliban would kill me if I went against them. Now I think I am safe, for the time anyway. We even think the police are not as bad as they were – they ask for less bribes.”

The Afghan police had become a byword for corruption and human rights abuses over the years. Lt-Col Rowley Walker, commanding officer of the Grenadier Guards, described them as “recruiting sergeants” for the Taliban, driving people into the arms of the insurgents. British officials insist that has changed and there certainly seem, at least, to be many more police on the ground. At a checkpoint, Ishan Ainullah, 27, a policeman for four years, put the improvement down to not having salaries stolen and being mentored by the Gurkhas.

Mr Ainullah had been shot once, in the leg, in an ambush, but insisted he was eager to carry on. “In the past, commanders would take some of your wages before you got them. Now we have bank cards and wages go straight there,” he said. “Having the Gurkhas here is extra. Many of us can speak Urdu and so can they. Some of them can even speak Pashto. We like the way they behave towards us – they always treat us with respect. It has not always been like that.

Captain Ram Kumar, of 2nd Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles, had a cautious view of transition in Helmand. “Things are much quieter now, certainly and they are getting better. But you have to be a very brave man in Afghanistan to make strong predictions about the future.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Proust as Captain Laure Berthaud in 'Spiral'
tvReview: Gritty, engaging and well-acted - it’s a wonder France’s biggest TV export isn’t broadcast on a more mainstream channel
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Carmichael in still from Madam Bovary trailer
film
News
i100
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links