A ruthless enemy, a hostile population and 50C heat

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In Musa Qala, on the front line of the Taliban insurgency against British troops in southern Afghanistan, a pick-up truck packed with heavily armed men roared up the main street. They were just 50 yards from the local district governor's house, a building pitted by bullet and rocket-propelled-grenade strikes, where British commanders were meeting tribal elders.

The gunmen in the pick-up were wearing black robes and large black or white turbans, common tribal dress in Helmand - but also the uniform of the Taliban. Who were they? A terrified local shopkeeper replied: "They could be the governor's militia, or they could be Taliban. We can't tell the difference. But you should leave right now."

One week before, hundreds of Taliban fighters had spent eight hours rampaging through the town, and shot up the governor's house. The movement is everywhere in Helmand, a dusty nightmare of a place lashed by scorching winds in summer, when temperatures hit 50C.

One British soldier told how his unit had come under intense fire from the Afghan police, who are supposed to be their allies. "They fired and manoeuvred straight past our vehicle," said the soldier, from the Parachute Regiment Pathfinder Unit. "They could clearly see that we weren't the Taliban, but they still kept firing, and we have intelligence that they had Taliban fighters with them." The gun battle lasted two hours, and the British had to abandon a vehicle.

British troops are now so dubious about the Afghan police in the town of Gereshk that they are given no advance warning of joint patrols, for fear they will tip off the Taliban. Half the translators hired by the British at Camp Bastion, their main base in Helmand, have left in fear of their lives.

Nor does the Afghan National Army inspire much more confidence. When the first unit was dispatched south to work with British troops, a quarter disappeared in transit from their training camp in Kabul. Their fears may be understandable: some weeks ago the severed heads of two Afghan soldiers were left outside a Canadian base in neighbouring Kandahar, with their severed penises in their mouths.

British troops in Helmand are entitled to feel that there are hostile forces on every side. Pro-Taliban music cassettes are openly on sale, and are highly popular. The songs include lyrics such as "The deserts are stained red with the blood of martyrs" and "Hey Mullah Omar, we will kill your enemies, and we are your Taliban [students]".

"It is as bad as we have ever seen it," a Western security source told The Independent on Sunday. "The Taliban has a sophistication and co-ordination that has not been there before. They are often staying and fighting, rather than breaking contact, as used to happen.

"Sometimes their tactics are almost suicidal. They will stand on the roofs of houses and shoot at helicopter gunships. They have a lot of ammunition and a lot more man-portable heavy weaponry - mortars, RPGs, heavy machine guns."

The Taliban claim to have "completely occupied" several districts in the south. "Helmand is a haven for us," Mohammed Hanif, a Taliban spokesman, boasted by telephone yesterday. "Every time the British come to Afghanistan, they have been defeated very badly, and very few escaped with their lives." The Taliban, he said, had a centre to recruit suicide bombers in Helmand. "They are coming from all over Afghanistan, and they number 1,500 so far," he claimed.

The impunity with which the Taliban are able to operate in much of southern Afghanistan is due in large part to the fact that it has a to its secure base of operations in neighbouring Pakistan, supposedly an ally with Britain and the US in the "war on terror".

In May, Colonel Chris Vernon, a British officer openly said the Taliban were running the insurgency from the Pakistani city of Quetta. The Pakistani government was livid. But it is an open secret that members of the Taliban and their former commanders are living in Quetta.

Pakistan has launched operations against alleged al-Qa'ida fighters and their allies in Waziristan, which borders east Afghanistan. But there have been no operations around Quetta.

"The answer the authorities give is 'We've got all sorts of difficulties with al-Qa'ida and North Waziristan. Do you want us to stir up the situation in Quetta, when public sentiment is with them?'" said Najam Sethi, the editor of Pakistan's Daily Times.

"Another reason suggested is that the government of Pakistan is obsessed with India, and India supports [President]Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. If India is going to have secular assets in Afghanistan, the security establishment here will feel it wants to back anti-secular assets there."