Up to 5,000 British troops sought for Afghanistan drugs crackdown

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The Independent Online

British military commanders are discussing proposals to move as many as 5,000 troops into one of Afghanistan's most lawless drug regions when Britain assumes control of Nato peacekeeping in the country the year after next.

British military commanders are discussing proposals to move as many as 5,000 troops into one of Afghanistan's most lawless drug regions when Britain assumes control of Nato peacekeeping in the country the year after next.

Planning is already under way for British forces to replace American troops in the two southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand in 2006. The region is the heartland of Afghanistan's Pashtuns, many of whom still support the Taliban, and US forces seeking to root out the movement routinely suffer casualties.

Helmand, the main poppy-growing region of Afghanistan, is expected to be at the centre of an aggressive new strategy to cut down on drug production in the country. A UN report last month showed the area under cultivation in the country has increased by two-thirds this year, despite widely criticised, British-led eradication efforts.

A massive new Afghan-directed effort to wipe out poppy fields is expected next spring, coupled with a move to deal withopium dealers in which arrests of big operators are promised. Fearing that Afghanistan could turn into a narco-state, Western leaders have also decided it is time to involve Western military force, as urged by the UN.

Intelligence and logistical support will be provided to Afghan eradication teams destroying the plants before they can be harvested, with British and US forces on standby in case of attacks. Last year eradication teams were often targeted by armed farmers in relatively peaceful provinces such as Wardak.

Helmand is regarded as one of Afghanistan's most dangerous areas for foreigners, and is almost off-limits for aid agencies. Despite its desperate poverty, it is dotted with marble mansions built by drugs barons, and shiny new tractors imported from Dubai with drugs money are for sale in the bazaars.

An increasing number of British soldiers are involved in training drugs-eradication teams and providing armed backup, but the British contribution will grow dramatically in 2006.

The Parachute Regiment is among units under consideration to supply British troops when Nato forces replace Americans in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT), garrisons that work on peacekeeping programmes as well as patrolling for security. Under the Helmand plans, British PRTs would still rely on US air power.

An Army source said: "Eradication will be done by Afghans ... [but] a British rapid-reaction force would be needed if things go wrong - if eradication teams are attacked, for example.

"Nobody thinks this would be easy. But drugs are such a big problem that dramatic action has to be taken."

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