UK's Afghan mission is failing, says drugs body

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The UK mission in Afghanistan is in danger of failing because of "misguided" support for American military and drug-eradication policies, an international think-tank has claimed.

Instead of taking part in the reconstruction of the country shattered by decades of war, British forces find themselves "at war" with a resurgent Taliban and alienated from an increasingly hostile population.

The report came as Tony Blair led tributes in the Commons to the two special forces soldiers killed in Helmand on Tuesday. He said: "They were fighting the Taliban. They were brave and committed soldiers. This country can be very proud of the work they were doing."

The study by the Senlis Council, a drug policy think-tank, predicts that the violence in the south will escalate. The Taliban and their allies have been exploiting the anger felt by farmers at the destruction of opium crops and by civilians who have suffered in US-led operations.

Lt-Gen David Richards, the British officer who is due to take over all Nato operations in Afghanistan with US troops under his command, warned the crop eradication programme was driving farmers into the hands of the Taliban and the Western forces are creating new enemies.

Last week Hamid Karzai, the President, levelled unprecedented criticism at the US-led coalition'stactics, deploring the deaths of hundreds of his countrymen and women while the Taliban grows in strength. About 600 people have been killedthis year.

UK and other Nato forces in Afghanistan are supposedly on a different mission from the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, which is engaging in war-fighting operations against Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters. The Senlis Council says villagers cannot differentiate between foreign troops. One researcher said that when she tried to explain the difference at a village shura (council) in Helmand, one elder said: "You cannot tell the difference between our tribes, so how can you expect us to tell the difference between yours. As far as we are concerned, they are all foreign soldiers who are Christians and they are in our country."

The Taliban and their Islamist allies have forced more than 200 schools and colleges to close. The campaign is aimed, say educationalists and human rights groups, to terrorise families into keeping children uneducated, unemployable, and to become a recruiting pool for the Islamists.

Jamilai Nassi, the headmistress of a girls' school in Lashkar Gar, the capital of Helmand province, received letters warning her to shut down the school. One read: "In this school they are teaching infidel books to girls and we don't want these girls to become infidels...

"I don't want you or the students to die at this young age. This is the last warning. If you are tired of life then come and your blood will be on your hands." Armed men also visited Ms Nassi's home at night. When an international organisation reported what was happening to the British base at Lashkar Gar, an officer said that it was a matter for the Afghan authorities.

The Senlis report stated "the unbalanced approach of the international community, which has mainly been directed towards counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency, has not only been ineffective and indirectly responsible for the growing state of war, it has also ignored the ... needs of the Afghan people."

Emmanuel Reinert, the council's executive director, said: "There is no peace to keep, there is no peace at all. It is a war mission, but it is not a mission that can be won with a military approach or otherwise you will be seen as invaders."