Special report: Afghanistan - The dead zone

Months of ferocious fighting have been followed by a lull at the start of Ramadan. But no one pretends the killing is over
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British forces in Afghanistan are restructuring their operations after months of fierce combat which have taken a mounting toll on the battlefield and caused rising concern at home.

The policy of setting up "advanced platoon houses", which have drawn relentless attacks in the heart of Helmand province's Taliban country, will be quietly abandoned. British troops will instead be concentrated in more easily defended bases near the towns of Lashkargar, Grishk, Sangin and Musa Qala, as well as their main base, Camp Bastion.

The outposts in the Sangin Valley are still being manned by British troops, but they are due to be handed over to the Afghan army, and no new ones are likely to be established.

Supply runs from the regional HQ in Kandahar, which are routinely attacked despite being escorted by entire battle groups, are getting greater protection. Apart from varying the routes being used, military sources say pre-emptive air strikes are being made on would-be ambushers as intelligence improves.

The policy, part of a package being put forward by the new British commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Richards, is aimed at stopping the haemorrhaging of troops and setting up secure zones where reconstruction, which has virtually ground to a halt in the lawless landscape, can begin. This was his original plan, but before he took over command of southern Afghanistan, British troops were sent into the Sangin Valley at the urgent request of the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, backed up by the Americans.

It is a measure of the ferocity of the resulting fighting that Ministry of Defence officials are relieved that no British soldier has been killed for 18 days. The last fatalities were on 6 September, when three soldiers died, one of them from injuries sustained five days previously. But even though there may now be a slight lull with the start of the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast all day, no one is pretending the killing is over.

Nato was expecting the Taliban to use classic hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. Instead it has been carrying out frontal attacks, losing many men, but still inflicting losses. Most worryingly, there appears to be no shortage of Islamist fighters coming across the porous Pakistani border to replace the killed and wounded.

The reality of conditions on the ground, and the privations faced by the troops, have remained largely hidden from the public back home, despite General Richards's warning that they are taking part in the most intense fighting since Korea. Brigadier Ed Butler, in command of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said his men had used 400,000 rounds of ammunition. "The fighting is extraordinarily intense. The intensity and ferocity is far greater than Iraq on a daily basis. It is up close and personal. It is hand to hand."

Corporal Trevor Coult, who won a Military Cross in Iraq, is based at Sangin. In his view, "this is worse than Baghdad. It is like World War I, we are living in trenches. We have to fight to get out of the base, we have to fight to get back in. You have to fight every day."

Another soldier who has served in Helmand said: "The problem is telling between civvies and the Taliban. We have been walking through a village and suddenly men will appear out of a doorway with a gun. Even then you are not sure whether he is out hunting, or out to hunt you."

An officer added: "We are flattening places we have already flattened, but the attacks have kept coming. We have killed them by the dozens, but more keep coming, locally or from across the border. We have used B1 bombers, Harriers and Mirage 2000s. We have dropped 500lb, 1,000lb and 2,000lb bombs. At one point our Apaches [helicopter gunships] ran out of missiles, they have fired so many.

"Almost any movement on the ground gets ambushed. We need an entire battle group to move things. Yet they will not give us the helicopters we have been asking for. We have greater firepower, and we are good soldiers, so we tend to win, But, of course, they can take their losses while our casualties will ... lead to concern back home. You also have to think that each time we kill one, how many more enemies we are creating among his brothers and sons."

Nato says hundreds of Taliban were killed in Operation Medusa, a Canadian-led operation in Kandahar Province. It was declared a "significant success", but the declaration of victory was followed by a series of suicide bombings - a tactic relatively unknown in Afghanistan until last year, but only too prevalent in Iraq.

The Islamist fighters have been strengthened by the controversial opium poppy eradication programme which has seen farmers, with crops destroyed without compensation, become a recruiting pool for the Taliban. Meanwhile, the Government's position on the matter has been, at best, confusing. A senior British officer in Helmand's capital, Lashkargar, asked British journalists, on the initial deployment six months ago: "When you see the ambassador in Kabul, can you ask him what exactly is the policy towards eradication? We certainly do not know."

The British military have tried to distance themselves from the crop destruction, but they acknowledge that many Afghans do not differentiate between them and the private contractors from the US company DynCorp, charged with the task. As an elder at a village shura in Helmand pointed out: "The Westerners cannot tell the difference between our tribes, how should we be able to tell the difference between theirs?"

But the Afghan government is adamant that the eradication must continue. Mohammed Daoud, the governor of Helmand, said: "You cannot separate instability and drugs in this province. The smugglers and drug dealers have very close connections with the Taliban, and both [groups] support each other."

At this uncertain time, Afghans are hedging their bets. Men in Lashkargar have started to don black turbans, growing their beards long and taking their daughters out of school, precautions for the day the Taliban may return to run their lives.

Less than half a mile from the British base in the Helmand capital, extremist clerics who had fled to Pakistan after the fall of Mullah Omar's regime are again preaching jihad. Preachers who spoke up against the Taliban have been assassinated, without receiving the protection promised by Afghan government forces.

The market in Lashkargar has already experienced bombings. The headmistress of the local girls' school has had death threats and has to have bodyguards. Students at the town's boys' school have been killed.

Stallholder Ali Jawad Ali, 33, measured the length of his growing beard with his fist. "We do not know what is going to happen here," he said. "We have already had killings and I do not want to offend anyone. There are people who only used to come in the night, but now walk about in daytime. I do not want to say any more."

Gul Mohammed, a carpenter, is keeping his two daughters away from school. "It is a pity, they liked their lessons," he said. "But the situation is difficult. We need to be safe for the time being. We are not safe now, it is more dangerous than it was just a few months ago."