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More than half of Afghanistan 'under Taliban'

More than half of Afghanistan is back under Taliban control and the Nato force in the country needs to be doubled in size to cope with the resurgent group, a report by the Senlis Council think-tank says. A study by the group found that the Taliban, enriched by illicit profits from the country's record poppy harvest, had formed de-facto governments in swathes of the southern Pashtun belt.

The Afghan government and its Nato allies strongly deny the Senlis version of what is taking place in the country and say the extent of alleged Taliban control – 54 per cent – is a major exaggeration. In particular, British troops in Helmand have, in recent months, recovered territory lost to the Islamist group.

But senior defence sources say that a lack of frontline combat forces has meant that areas clawed back from the Taliban often cannot be held and have to be retaken after costly and fierce fighting. There is also an acknowledgement that the dangers on the ground have meant that aid efforts are being stymied.

The Senlis Council made a name for itself by advocating that Afghan opium, which supplies 93 per cent of the world market, should be regulated and produced for medicinal purposes. The organisation had been regarded in the past as very much a fringe body with unrealistic policies.

But it has recently begun to hold seminars with influential think-tanks such as the International institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which are attended by senior diplomats and military commanders. Last month, the European Parliament passed a motion urging the production of opium for medicine on an experimental basis by a sizeable majority.

Yesterday's Senlis dossier coincided with an Oxfam report saying that Afghanistan is facing a humanitarian crisis in which millions face "severe hardship comparable with sub-Saharan Africa". It highlights the fact that US spending on aid in the country, $4.4bn since 2002, was only a fraction of its military expenditure of $35bn in 2007 alone.

"As in Iraq, too much aid is absorbed by profits of companies and subcontractors, on non-Afghan resources and on high expatriate salaries and living costs," said the report. "Each full-time expatriate consultant costs up to half a million dollars a year."

Meanwhile, Louise Arbour, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said civilian casualties caused by military action has reached "alarming levels" this year. "These not only breach international law but are eroding support among the Afghan community for the government and international military presence, as well as public support in contributing states for continued engagement in Afghanistan," she said.

The Senlis report, while accepting that "collateral damage"' has led to alienation among the population, maintains that the Nato force needs to be doubled in size, from 40,000 to 80,000, and some contributing nations should remove caveats which prevent their troops from taking part in frontline duties. It also urged Nato to invite Muslim countries to contribute to the Afghan force.

Norine MacDonald QC, the president of the Senlis Council, said: "The security situation has reached crisis proportions. The insurgency now controls vast swathes of unchallenged territory including rural areas, border areas, some district centres, and important road arteries.

"The disturbing conclusion is that despite a universal desire to 'succeed' in Afghanistan, the country is in grave danger of becoming a divided state. The Taliban are the de facto authority in significant portions of territory in the south. Exploiting public frustration over poverty and inflammatory US-led counter narcotics policies, the Taliban are gaining increasing political legitimacy in the minds of the Afghan people."