On patrol in Afghanistan's suicide-bombing capital

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The Independent Online

The raid came in the half-light of dawn. British, Nato and Afghan soldiers descended on a suspected Taliban stronghold in Gereshk, the suicide bombing capital of Afghanistan.

This is the town in Helmand province where the Taliban started its Iraq-style campaign of suicide bombing and even as Western forces attempt to establish control over this important strategic juncture, the unprecedented level of suicide attacks has continued.

Just as the weekend suicide bombing in Kandahar was aimed at an anti-Taliban militia leader, the insurgents in Gereshk have also been picking off the local leaders opposing them. The latest victim, a village chief, was killed last week. But the threat of suicide and roadside bombs is ever present for those conducting the security searches as well and Sergeant-Major Richard Wright was at pains to prepare the party, which also included Danish and Czech troops, for the danger.

"Whereas in other areas around here the Taliban engage in more frontal attacks, we have always had more bombings in Gereshk," said Sgt-Major Wright. "We hear that the Taliban use other areas to 'blood' their young fighters. But Gereshk is definitely the place for their more experienced men and at the same time men who are prepared to kill themselves."

Yesterday's swoop on the five walled compounds on the fringes of the town came on the back of intelligence suggesting the buildings were being used as a planning headquarters.

"We cannot frankly justify going into peoples' homes in a situation like this, kicking down doors, all guns blazing. That would be simply counter-productive," said Major Crispin d'Apice, of 1st Battalion, the Coldstream Guards. "We will be here for a long time and we have to work among the villagers around here in the future and we have to think ahead."

So the troops embarked on a "soft knock" raid. And as is common practice now, Afghan troops led the way – an attempt to show that the fledgling Afghan army is increasingly playing an active role.

The search of the compounds led to the recovery of a Kalashnikov semi-automatic rifle, ammunition and a grenade launcher. However, in a place like Afghanistan, awash with weaponry, this is nothing like enough for arrests, and the arms will probably be returned. Five men were detained. They said they were itinerant workers who had travelled down from the north of the country looking for odd jobs. After questioning, officers from the Afghan forces decide to set them free. This did not go down well with some of the British soldiers, who say that the men's stories did not match and that they fitted the intelligence profile of Taliban suspects.

The residents of the compound said they were bewildered by the raid. One elderly man, Ajirkhan Mohammed, said: "I have been living here since the time of King Zahir Shah. I have never supported terrorism, so I do not know why this is going on. I want to know who told them there are terrorists here." Haji Muli Agha, in his fifties, added: "I don't mind the searches if they help security. But the future of Afghanistan is not good, it will be like Palestine, there will be fighting for generations."