British forces in one of the most dangerous regions of Afghan-istan face their first potential threat from farmers whose poppy fields are due to be destroyed from this week.
The government of President Hamid Karzai is determined to carry out large-scale eradication of opium crops in Helmand province, where the first members of a British task force of 5,700 are being deployed. British commanders here have stressed that their troops will not take part in the highly controversial programme. But both Afghan and British officials have acknowledged that they are likely to suffer a backlash in this largely rural community if farmers lose their livelihood with no adequate compensation.
British troops are already preparing for expected attacks from a resurgent Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies. Islamist fighters have carried out waves of suicide and roadside bombings, murdered aid workers, burnt schools and beheaded teachers for offering to teach girls.
British soldiers may also have to disarm the grandiosely titled Afghan Security Force - in effect former mujahedin hired by US forces to guard their bases. They are accused by local people of lawlessness and involvement in extortion.
President Karzai is under intense pressure from the US and Britain to curb Afghanistan's production of heroin. Helmand, which accounts for 25 per cent of the opium crop, will be used as a public show of the government's determination. But neighbouring regions where warlords are said to have links with the government are not facing any significant eradication programme, further fuelling anger in Helmand.
The US is said to favour a robust eradication campaign. But while British ministers have said repeatedly that one of the troops' primary tasks would be to help halt Afghan opium production - the largest in the world and responsible for 90 per cent of the drug on Britain's streets - they also say soldiers will simply be providing "security" rather than taking part in eradication or counter-terrorist operations.
The statements have created confusion over the precise mission of the force, which includes paratroopers and Royal Marines, and is larger than the one sent during the 2001 war.
Col Gordon Messenger, commander of the British forces being deployed in Helmand, said his force would not destroy poppy crops or provide security for Afghan forces doing so. Another senior officer said: "We should not even be in the same area where the eradication is taking place. The problem is that we shall have to be back there in the future with Afghan forces."
Fazel Ahmad Sherzad, head of the anti-narcotics department in the province, said: "They have doubled the area of the land growing poppy in Helmand. We have told them to stop, and they have not listened. We have even taken people to Kabul and told them, to show how serious we are about cutting the crop."
Afghan forces themselves are concerned, however. "It will be a big mistake to cut the crop this year," said Abdul Shakur, police commandant in Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gar. "The people have nothing else and they will get angry."
Lt Shabaz Ali, of the 3rd Battalion of the Afghan army, said: "If I am ordered to destroy the crop, then I shall have to do so, [but] we should leave them alone this year and then give them compensation next year before cutting the crop.
"The farmers will turn against us and the British. They have guns and they can fight."
At Sharabak, an Afghan army headquarters next to Camp Bastion, the massive British military base under construction, Sgt Sardar Khan added: "This will cause big problems. It will be difficult for the British to say they are not involved. In here, for example, they are in the next camp to us."
* In Afghanistan's first war crimes trial, Asadullah Sarwari, a Communist-era intelligence chief, was sentenced to death by firing squad in Kabul yesterday for ordering the killings of hundreds of Afghans, Reuters reports.Reuse content