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.”

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
Life and Style
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone