'Depleted' Taliban steps up suicide bombings

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The Independent Online

British forces used to describe the Gereshk valley as the "black heart of Taliban country". After months of ferocious fighting, much of this area of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan has been reclaimed, and reconstruction and development work is at last under way.

But the violence has not abated. Instead, it has taken on the lethal form of suicide bombings.

The Taliban have incurred heavy losses in the area recently and this has prompted them to adopt the type of suicide bombing attacks prevalent in Iraq. Such bombings have claimed the lives of 35 people and have wounded 82 in a series of attacks in and around the town.

Newly published United Nations figures show that 103 suicide bombings were carried out in Afghanistan in the first eight months of this year – a 69 per cent increase over the same period last year. Six attacks in the past seven days across the country, including three in the capital, Kabul, led to 46 deaths. The latest casualty was an American aid worker who died at the weekend in Ghazni.

Gereshk, which used to be a busy commercial centre, has become a particular target as shops and businesses have begun to reappear, with Taliban fighters using outlying villages as bases to launch the attacks.

The Taliban concentration on suicide bombings has followed a change of tactics by the British military. The arrival of the 12 Mech Brigade, under Brigadier John Lorimer, led to a decision to establish a presence on the Taliban's home ground to begin reconstruction projects.

Taliban positions were outflanked and bases established in some of the bloodiest combat of the war, which saw 30 British deaths in the current mission.

Second Lieutenant Andrew Bell, of the 2nd Battalion, the Mercian Regiment, has been involved in combat since he arrived in Helmand fresh from Sandhurst. In one of the most fierce engagements, at Garmsir, two of his company were killed.

Sergeant Craig Brelsford, 25, had repeatedly risked being hit while dragging injured comrades to safety. He died as he was trying to rescue Private Johan Botha, also 25, who died from his wounds. "It was a shock to lose the guys", said 24-year-old Lt Bell, "especially Sgt Brelsford. When you are a young platoon commander the platoon sergeant is as close to God as you get. He had been a tremendous help to me and he was amazing right to the end, totally fearless."

Brigadier Lorimer, the commander of the Helmand task force, said: "We had to get into their home ground; this meant fighting in their terrain toe to toe, close combat where you lose much of your technical superiority. But this is what we had to do to establish ourselves among the locals and start development projects.

"What we see is that the Taliban are making up their losses with more and more foreign fighters. We have seen an increase of around 40 per cent in the non-Afghan element, and some of them are suicide bombers. It shows the desperation of the Taliban that they are using these tactics."

Rahim Aminullah, a local man who lost his 23-year-old son in a suicide bombing at the town's busy market, said: "After all the fighting we thought there would be peace. Instead we have these suicide killings. We like the fact that roads and hospitals are being built, but we think the foreign troops should do a lot more to stop these bombs. It is up to the British and Americans to protect us.

"They have troops in this area, but I do not think there are enough of them. We have the Afghan police, but they are poorly armed, and some of them are even in alliance with the Taliban."