British forces in southern Afghanistan are experiencing periods of lockdown in two key areas, halting patrols to avoid suicide bombings by the Taliban. A senior officer called the security threat "critical".
Lt-Col Andy Price, military spokesman of the British task force in Helmand province, said troops had been staying off the streets of the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, and the town of Gereshk, because "suicide bombers are walking around, looking for us", waiting for a convoy or patrol to go past.
A Royal Marine was killed in Lashkar Gah on 19 October by the first suicide attack on British forces in the province. While patrols have now been resumed, high risk areas like the centre of town are still being avoided.
The bombing signalled a change of strategy by the Taliban. In August and September the movement suffered heavy losses in "swarm attacks" on isolated British outposts in northern Helmand. Seventeen soldiers of the Parachute Regiment were killed in the fighting, described as the most intense British forces had seen since the Korean war.
But the last serious clash was on 27 September, as 42 Commando of the Royal Marines took over from 3 Para, and Taliban commanders said they would resort to suicide attacks instead. One boasted that the movement had "hundreds" of volunteers waiting to cross the border from Pakistan.
Lt-Col Price did not give an estimate of numbers, but said the Marines were less confident than 3 Para that the Taliban had suffered significant attrition: "For every Taliban you kill, you recruit three or four more." The bombers, while not getting help directly from Iraq, were following the Iraqi example "more and more", he added. The lethal effect of their attacks had been increased by placing a vest full of ball bearings and nails over the explosives, turning the wearers into "human Claymore mines".
To counter the risk of vehicle bombs, British forces have broadcast messages on local radio, warning Afghans to stay at least 20 yards behind military convoys. The same message is carried on the back of vehicles.
The limits on patrolling is a setback for commanders' hopes of returning to the original purpose of the British deployment in Helmand, which is to support redevelopment efforts. While the summer's fighting took place in an area where British troops were sent only at the request of the provincial governor, Lashkar Gah and Gereshk are supposed to be more stable centres from which the beneficial effects of redevelopment can spread, winning local support for the government in Kabul.
The danger is that British forces might end up in the same position as those in the Iraqi city of Basra, where troops have largely remained within their bases since a spate of roadside bombings and suicide attacks a year ago. Apart from protecting British lives, the aim is to avoid losing support because of local casualties. Two Afghan children died in the blast which killed Marine Gary Wright in Lashkar Gah 10 days ago.
The head of 42 Commando, Lt-Col Matt Holmes, insisted that the main priority over the next six months remained "to provide security where needed to support reconstruction". Killing Taliban fighters was not the primary purpose, although "if the Taliban want a fight, they will get one". Asked if the Taliban could be defeated, he said: "That is up to the Afghan people. It is not necessarily entirely a military solution. We hope that local people will come to see the Taliban for what they are, a movement acting purely in their own interests."
Commanders are angry at Taliban claims to have driven British troops out of Musa Qala, one of the towns in northern Helmand which saw the heaviest fighting. The British withdrew in mid-October after a deal brokered by the provincial governor, who set conditions including a 35-day cessation in fighting and local acknowledgement of the Afghan government's authority.
Far from being a climbdown, said Lt-Col Price, it was the "first seed of an Afghan solution" which would free British forces for redevelopment. A similar agreement is under discussion in the town of Sangin, where the Paras beat off wave after wave of Taliban attacks in the summer.
Although northern outposts such as Now Zad and Kajaki are still seeing occasional small-arms clashes, there has been a relative lull in fighting since 42 Commando arrived. Some have suggested that the Taliban held back during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which has just ended with the festival of Eid al-Fitr. Other theories are that many fighters have returned home to plant opium poppies, or that fighting in Afghanistan traditionally eases as winter approaches. But Lt-Col Holmes said: "I am not expecting a quiet winter."
* Fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar has rejected the latest offer of peace talks by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a rebel spokesman said yesterday. Instead, the one-eyed leader with a $10m bounty on his head has repeated his threat to prosecute Mr Karzai in an Islamic court for the "massacre" of Afghans. Mr Karzai on Friday repeated his offer for talks if the Taliban met several conditions, including ending support from elements in Pakistan and the involvement of foreign fighters. The Taliban has rejected all previous offers.Reuse content