Jerome Starkey: The deadly task of fighting against an invisible enemy

Analysis

Share
Related Topics

The grim toll of soldiers coming home from Afghanistan in coffins is testimony to the brutal contest being waged in the poppy fields of Helmand. For three years, British troops have been massively undermanned, underequipped and overstretched as they have tried to convince a deeply cynical population that they are safe from the Taliban.

Most of the province was beyond the reach of British forces. When the troops did come, they rarely stayed. Far from feeling safe, the people watched as the Taliban grew stronger. But the arrival of 8,000 US Marines in Barack Obama's surge is threatening to change the balance – and the Taliban are fighting back.

Helmand is their heartland, its opium is their war chest, and they are desperate to stay in control. When I was in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, last month many people struggled to understand why Britain and Nato, with all its might, were unable to defeat these ragtag insurgents. I met a shopkeeper selling drinks just 100 metres from the British headquarters. Afghan police had found two improvised explosive devices buried in a culvert in front of his shop.

"When the international troops first came here, they cleaned up all over Afghanistan within a month," said Khan Mohammed. "Now I discover that there's a mine exploding in front of my shop."

Like many people, he had bought into the wild conspiracy theories which flourish in Lashkar Gah's bazaars. "The British must be supporting the Taliban," he said.

But the Taliban know different. More than 3,000 British troops are involved in an operation to clear the roads between Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, Helmand's second largest town. It's an operation that Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, who led Taskforce Helmand last summer, hoped to complete, but never did. Without the extra Americans it would have been impossible to succeed because too many of Britain's fighting troops were pinned down in combat outposts dotted along the central section of the river, which runs the length of the valley. The extra US Marines are evidence of hard lessons learnt in Iraq. Senior commanders insist it will "tip the balance". But counter-insurgency experts have already issued a warning that they may not be enough to rout the Taliban completely.

John Nagl, who was recently appointed to the Pentagon's defence policy board, said: "We do not have enough troops to hold what we have cleared in Helmand. The additional American troops are a help, but they are insufficient."

The Taliban have also learnt lessons. Homemade bombs have become their weapon of choice. Where they used to try to overrun British platoon houses, or out-gun them in a firefight, today they watch and wait.

They look at how the soldiers patrol and they watch how they fight. The irrigation ditches that line most of the roads have become a favourite place for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) because the Taliban know that soldiers instinctively dive there for cover when the fighting starts.

Places like Garmsir, where the Marines are deployed, and Babaji, where the British are involved in Operation Panther's Claw, have become so-called "strongholds". The Taliban have been all but free to manufacture IEDs, process poppies into heroin, and terrorise local people.

Students living in the districts have fled to Lashkar Gah. I met three who said the Taliban had closed their schools, the fighting had destroyed their homes, and all three had lost innocent relatives in crossfire.

For the British soldiers on the ground, it's an impossibly frustrating and dangerous mission. They are fighting an enemy they rarely see and trying to win over a population who have suffered terribly since the foreign troops arrived.

The British and the Americans are following an old Nato doctrine of clear, hold and build, but the extra troops means this is the first time they have been able to fulfil it. Both forces have promised to stay in the areas they clear until the Afghan security forces are ready to take over. If it works, it should at least mean that British troops won't have to die clearing these areas a second time.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A huge step forward in medical science, but we're not all the way there yet

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron has painted a scary picture of what life would be like under a Labour government  

You want constitutional change? Fixed-term parliaments have already done the job

Steve Richards
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album