The province where the Taliban were never defeated

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The Independent Online

The Taliban never really fell in Helmand province. While the outside world was celebrating the end of the Taliban regime after the fall of Kandahar in 2001, the Taliban were still in control of most of Helmand. It was in Helmand that the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, took refuge after the fall of Kandahar, and from which he is believed to have staged a dramatic escape on the back of a motorcycle in early 2002. There were even claims from the Taliban in 2003 that the world's most wanted man, Osama Bin Laden, had spent some time on the border between Helmand and the neighbouring province of Nimroz, under the noses of US forces.

When a British security contractor was forced out of his car at gunpoint, taken into the hills and beheaded in the nearby province of Farah last year, there were reports that the Taliban insurgents responsible were from Helmand.

Over the past year, Helmand has emerged as one of the main centres of the Taliban insurgency. Although it is only now attracting the attention of the outside world, the Taliban insurgency has been raging in Helmand ever since the original victory of US-led forces in Afghanistan in 2001. As early as 2002, the insurgents tried to assassinate the Afghan intelligence chief in the province. In March 2003, two US special forces soldiers were ambushed and killed by the Taliban in the province.

But over the past year the insurgency has rapidly grown in intensity, with the import of tactics from Iraq. There has been a spate of suicide bombings, beheadings, and attacks on soft targets, where previously the Taliban preferred to attack US and Afghan forces head on.

The story of why American forces have been unable to score a decisive blow against the Taliban in Helmand is a combination of the nature of the region, and the failure of the US-backed Hamid Karzai government to do more to reconstruct it. Most NGOs do not dare venture into the dangerous province.

Unlike Kunar province in the east, another major centre of the insurgency, Helmand does not have a rugged and unpoliceable mountainous border with Pakistan. Most of the border is flat and featureless desert. But it has always been noticeably porous.

Drug smugglers have always crossed freely, paying Afghan and Pakistani border guards to turn a blind eye. The same Pashtun tribes live on either side.

Helmand produces more raw opium than anywhere else in the world. There is no other economy. Before the Soviet invasion, Helmand was a wealthy agricultural area. But irrigation systems collapsed in the years of the jihad waged against the Soviets, and today opium poppies are the only viable crop.