Helmand force must wait for more troops

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The Independent Online

British forces in Afghanistan face fighting the Taliban through the winter without the prospect of significant Nato reinforcement until next year at the earliest.

Senior defence and diplomatic sources warned that the traditional cessation of campaigning in Afghanistan until the spring was unlikely to happen in Helmand.

It also emerged that the extra troops which may be sent by Poland and Romania will not be deployed until January and it is likely to be another month after that before they are ready to go into action. And no fresh supply has been found of helicopters the commanders on the ground say they need desperately.

In Afghanistan, Nato took command of 12,000 US troops yesterday.

Meanwhile a United Nations report has revealed more than 90,000 people have been displaced in the recent fighting, bringing the total number of homeless in the country to more than 200,000.

In London, Tony Blair, said yesterday: "Sure there are people in Afghanistan who are suffering as a result of the fighting that is taking place. But they suffered a lot more under the Taliban. We do not want al-Qa'ida and Taliban back in power in Afghanistan, using it as a training ground for terrorism around the world."

A winter break in Afghanistan would have allowed the Royal Marines of the 3 Commando Brigade, who are replacing the paratroopers of 16 Air Assault, from securing the areas for much delayed reconstruction projects.

However, diplomatic sources pointed out that Helmand, where the bulk of the British forces are based, do not suffer from adverse weather conditions.

"I share the reservations about saying there will be a winter downturn," one senior Foreign Office official said.

"Climatically in Helmand there is not snow, there are no high mountain passes. It must therefore be conceivable to see continuing operations throughout the winter. I think we have to keep an open mind."

Poland is expected to send a thousand extra troops tom Afghanistan and Romainia around 600.

Village elders in the Helmand area have, meanwhile, organised an unofficial 'truce' between British forces and some Islamist fighters allied to the Taliban in Musa Qala, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. But, said diplomatic sources, it may collapse under pressure from Taliban leaders in Pakistan and their sympathisers within the Pakistani intelligence service.

Taliban officials have already accused the British of breaking terms of the cease fire by maintaining troop presence in one of the villages where they have a forward base.

"It is a very fragile and precarious process," the senior official said. "The understanding that the tribal elders have made with the Taliban could breakdown at any time."

The official said that the Taliban may fear that their position would be undermined if such agreements were to be taken up in other areas, allowing a measure of stability to return. "Were this process to consolidate the spread to other districts, I am sure the Taliban would see it as a very worrying development."

He said there were some encouraging signs that local people in Helmand were now turning to provincial governor Mohammad Daoud - loyal to the government's President Hamid Karzai - amid growing war-weariness.

"They are not turning against the UK forces," he said. "I think people are fed up with being caught up in the fighting and their towns being turned into battlegrounds."

It was announced yesterday that British troops wounded in fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq are to receive an additional allowance of up to £10 a day while they are in hospital. The extra money forms part of a new operational welfare package for Service personnel undergoing in-patient treatment.

Existing separation allowances and at-sea bonuses will also be extended to cover personnel who are in hospital. Other measures include additional travel expenses for families visiting Service personnel in hospital and free delivery of postal parcels over the Christmas period, in line with the arrangements for troops serving on operations.

There will also be improved access to broadband internet connections, television and library facilities. The announcement comes at a time when the Government has faced criticism over the conditions and medical treatment for troops fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.