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

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.”