One year on, Helmand is a bloody failure

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The explosion tore the suicide bomber apart and set alight parked cars. The guard who had shot him was seriously injured as were some Afghans on their way to the mosque for Friday prayers. Terrified women clutching their children fled as ambulances and police cars arrived.

The attack was in the centre of Lashkar Gar, near the office of the governor, which we had passed in a convoy with British diplomats just minutes previously. The target this time, however, was neither government officials nor foreigners, but the offices of an aid agency.

The attack is ominous for British policy in Helmand. A year ago this month John Reid, then the defence secretary, announced the deployment of 5,000 British troops to Helmand. The three-year mission would hopefully end, he said, without a shot being fired in anger.

Now, after more than half a million rounds fired and dozens killed in some of the fiercest fighting that British forces have engaged in since Korea in 1950-53, intense efforts are under way to kick start reconstruction, which had been badly hampered because aid agencies had deemed Helmand too dangerous to operate in.

There are fears that the attempted bombing of one of the few agencies which had returned to the province would again keep humanitarian organisations away from Helmand and set back the process of winning loyalty and support, which British officials acknowledge is imperative, after months of fighting the Taliban. Although hundreds of insurgents were killed, there were also civilian casualties.

The British mission, the "Third Afghan War" according to many, is entering its most critical phase. A winter lull has followed a summer and autumn of conflict. But no one doubts that the Taliban will launch an offensive once the snow on the mountain passes melts. To add to the problems, Mohammed Daoud, Helmand's governor and Britain's main ally there, was sacked by the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, at the end of last year.

Instead of drawing down the numbers in Afghanistan, UK forces here are likely to be reinforced. At the same time there is a growing possibility that the US "surge" in Baghdad will make it impractical to go through with the envisaged British withdrawal of 3,000 troops from Iraq.

But there appears to be hope for Afghanistan among the British military and diplomats. With that, however, is an acknowledgement that mistakes had been made in the past.

Yesterday was Nick Kay's last day as the UK regional co-ordinator for Helmand, a job encompassing reconstruction, as well dealing with the problem of opium production. He said: "It has been a lot more intense and more challenging than anything that can have been captured in the planning process.But ... we know we have to win over the Afghan population." He added that, despite the violence in Helmand, the security situation in Lashkar Gar was not as bad as that in Iraq.

But Amir Mohammed, 65, a farmer, said: "We have had nothing but fighting since the British came. A lot of people have been killed by them. The Taliban are back all over Helmand. They are in Musa Qala, Nawzad, Sangin and Garamsir. There is no security. At least there was security under the Taliban. Also they are now talking about destroying our poppy fields. How will we eat?"