Afghanistan: Opium wars

British troops have begun deploying in a Taliban-dominated area riddled with corruption and tribal rivalries, where the only industry is growing poppies. Tom Coghlan reports from Grishk and Lashkargar, Helmand Province
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The Independent Online

"If one Talib is in a village, the infidels bomb the whole village and kill innocent people," their leader went on. "The British should come and fight us face to face and stop using their planes. They have been here three times and been nicely beaten three times," he added, referring to ill-fated British imperial adventures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. "If there were two million foreign soldiers, we would defeat them if they fought us face to face."

There are already frequent clashes: yesterday Afghan security forces said they had attacked Taliban militants in a cave complex north of Lashkargar, capital of the anarchic southern province of Helmand, where the deployment of 3,500 British soldiers is gathering pace. Two Taliban fighters were said to have been killed and weapons seized.

Tomorrow comes a less-heralded but no less significant British military commitment to the country. With the beginning of May, the British-led Nato command structure known as the ARRC (Allied Rapid Reaction Corps) starts operating from Kabul. It is the first phase in a gradual integration of the entire foreign military presence in Afghanistan under Nato leadership.

By early next year, 14,000 American troops will have been incorporated into the Nato force. A British lieutenant-general, David Richards, will command, the first time US forces have served under the theatre-wide leadership of a foreign general since 1945.

With a resurgent Taliban making inroads in the south, and growing disillusionment with the Western-backed government of Hamid Karzai, Nato's Supreme Commander in Europe, US General James Jones, has called Afghanistan "the most important mission that Nato has undertaken" in its 58-year history.

What that might mean for ordinary British troops was evident in the lawless badlands of Helmand last week. In the bazaar at Grishk, an area of noted Taliban sympathy in the north of the province, British Paras were patrolling the streets on Thursday. In early February, close to the town, 200 Taliban fought Afghan forces who were backed by British Harrier jets.

Violence against British forces has so far been limited to two suicide bomb attacks on successive Fridays this month, targeting the British base in Lashkargar. On Friday, the British squaddies guarding the gate at the base did not appear unduly worried, although a lance-corporal who declined to be named admitted: "Everyone's parents are pretty worried."

But a greater concern appeared to be the extreme sunburn afflicting various pale British soldiers and the possibility that the England football team might acquire a Brazilian manager.

Many suicide bombings in Afghanistan have so far proved ineffective, usually killing only the bomber. But the Taliban have shown an increasing aptitude for another tactic imported from Iraq, the roadside bomb. The only such attack on British forces injured three soldiers, two of them seriously. A massive bomb in neighbouring Kandahar last week obliterated a Canadian armoured vehicle, killing all four occupants.

In the Grishk bazaar, the mood was a mixture of frustration and hostility. "I am an enemy of the government and a friend of the Taliban," said Mohammed Zahir, 48, a storekeeper. His views were widely echoed. "This Karzai government is a disaster. Under the Taliban we had good law and order; under this government all the police are corrupt. Why should we trust foreigners when they are working side by side with a corrupt government?"

The "good law and order" of the Taliban included chopping off the limbs of robbers and bulldozing walls on to homosexuals. But, four years on, many people in Afghanistan's deep south have fond memories of the Taliban's tough stance and relative lack of corruption. Helmand has had little development, and the provincial government is riddled with corruption and tribal nepotism and is heavily involved in the drugs trade.

British and American pressure produced the removal of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the old governor, last December. A powerful tribal leader, he was "promoted" by President Karzai to a seat in the upper house of the new Afghan parliament. No Western official will deny Mr Akhundzada was deeply embroiled in the drug trade, and although his replacement is seen as honest, nobody is prepared to say the same of the old governor's brother, who remains deputy governor, or the provincial police chief.

Helmand remains an area of grinding poverty where the only source of wealth is opium production. The British deployment is an effort to alleviate the poverty and rampant corruption of the province using a huge civilian component from the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development.

The opium harvest is now in full swing across Helmand, where swaying poppy fields press right up to the main roads. One US official said that with good weather and a minimum 50 per cent rise in the area under cultivation, a record crop was expected. Eradication efforts by the central government were, Western officials say, hampered by bribery of the government eradication teams.

But General Richards has said: "Nato will not be involved in poppy eradication, because we are deeply cautious that if we get it wrong and create the wrong environment, we will tip otherwise perfectly law-abiding and co-operative people into the opposition camp." Whether such a clear distinction can be drawn between the war on drugs and the war on the Taliban is debatable.

Poppy farmers across Helmand say the Taliban have cut a deal with the drugs lords to reduce their operations until after the poppy harvest ends, several weeks from now, so as not to disrupt opium collection and transport by attracting government and foreign troops to the area.

The Taliban also have a financial interest: they tax all farmers one kilogram of opium, and 4.5kg from those producing 45kg or more.

As the sun set over the 1,000-year-old ruins that dot the country round Lashkargar, the Taliban broke off to pray, warning: "When the opium harvest is finished, the jihad begins."

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