British forces and their Nato allies were preparing yesterday to retake a town in Helmand province that had fallen to the Taliban, signalling the start of what may be the decisive showdown in Afghanistan.
General David Richards, the outgoing British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, declared he would not allow the insurgents to stay in control of Musa Qala, overrun last week by Taliban fighters, who destroyed government buildings and abducted opponents. The takeover was a setback as southern Afghanistan prepares for a bitter struggle for control, with British troops in the forefront.
British officials were clearly caught off guard. Just a few days earlier Brigadier Jerry Thomas, commander of the Royal Marines in Helmand, and Nick Kay, the UK regional co-ordinator for the province, were hailing a deal last year in Musa Qala - under which British troops withdrew in return for a guarantee of security by tribal elders - as a model for other such agreements.
The decisive fighting will encompass a much wider area. Nato and the Taliban recognise that the next few months will be the most crucial in the conflict. Both sides are promising spring offensives, and both know that failure will have huge strategic consequences.
The Taliban proved during 2006, the bloodiest year in Afghanistan since 2001, that they are back, especially with the use of suicide bombers. But they also suffered big losses during a summer and autumn of ferocious combat, after claiming they would capture Kandahar and then making the mistake of taking on Nato firepower in conventional warfare. In the Pashtun south, the overwhelming belief is that the Taliban must carry out a much-promised assault to preserve their credibility.
Nato commanders accept that simply wiping out the insurgents will not equate to victory. According to varying sets of figures, between 800 and 1,500 Islamist fighters died last year, mostly in the Kandahar area. But the emptying of a few dozen religious schools, or madrassas, across the border in Pakistan would more than fill that gap.
Many other insurgents fight out of economic necessity rather than ideology, and their deaths simply create new enemies among their kith and kin. Air strikes, continually called in to support the undermanned Nato force, have inevitably led to civilian casualties, further fuelling anger among the population.
The scale of the problem can be seen by the fact that just a few months after it was claimed the Panjwayi area, near Kandahar, had been cleared, US, Canadian, and British troops have had to move back in, because Taliban fighters were returning. Nato's spring "surge" in the south will focus on Helmand, the base of British operations, but will also include neighbouring Kandahar province. Here, too, the British will be heavily involved.
"It is essential that we disrupt and destroy the other side's ability to carry out attacks," said General Richards. "No one is underestimating what is involved here, but we shall succeed."
About 5,000 extra troops will join the 32,000 strong Nato force for the operation. Britain is sending 800 more troops. The Americans are contributing 3,200 troops and the Poles around 1,000, with a contingent of special forces.
General Richards is leaving Afghanistan today, and an American, General Dan McNeill, is taking over. The new commander will have something General Richards repeatedly and vainly asked for: a reserve force.
General Richards could not resist pointing out that one of the main reasons new operations were necessary was because he was denied the strategic reserve.
General McNeill, unlike the British, has been deeply sceptical of the Musa Qala deal, which he is believed to consider a strategic mistake. What happened there will strengthen his hand.
The more combative policy could get the influential backing of Assadullah Wafa, the governor of Helmand, whose predecessor was sacked by President Hamid Karzai. Mr Wafa told The Independent on Sunday: "There were things in the Musa Qala agreement I was surprised by. I have drawn up a protocol which makes sure that the government of Afghanistan actually rules that place. We cannot allow our enemies to have sanctuaries anywhere."
The Americans are also pressing for a tougher line on drug eradication. President Karzai has resisted pressure from Washington to begin aerial crop spraying, but may agree to it next year unless this year's campaign brings a drastic fall in opium poppy production.
British officers fear their troops will again have to face the prospect of the Taliban exploiting the anger of farmers whose fields have been destroyed.
The deputy police commander for Panjwayi district, Mohammed Ibrahim, sees clear dangers. "We promised the farmers compensation for their lost crop last year and did not keep that promise," he said. "We shall kill their crop again this year and again fail to help them. Some of them will be angry at us and the British, or whoever is in charge".
Janan Agha, 32, a farmer, fled his home with his family during fighting last year. He has returned, and admits to growing poppies. "I have to feed my wife, my sons and daughters," he said. "I know they may destroy my poppies and I will somehow have to make a living. I will not join the Taliban even if they offer me money for my loss. But there are others who will."Reuse content