The commander of the British forces returning from Helmand said that his forces were having to make up for the time lost by the decision of the US and UK to invade Iraq instead of concentrating on post-Taliban Afghanistan.
"We could have carried on in 2002 in the same way we have gone about business now," said Brigadier Ed Butler. "Have the interim four years made a difference? I think realistically they have. It doesn't mean that we will not achieve what we set out to do."
Stressing that he was speaking from a strictly UK perspective, and not for the international community, Brigadier Butler added: "So have we slipped back? I don't think we have slipped back, we may have marked time and I think we are starting to make up for that time."
Brigadier Butler continued that an international presence may be required in Afghanistan for the next 20 years, but he did not specify how long the British forces would have to remain.
Brigadier Butler, who heads the 3 Para Battle Group, has just handed over command in Afghanistan. He disclosed that his troops had come close to running out of supplies ."It got pretty close. We never actually ran out but that was the nature of the conflict. The guys were not starving but people were down to their belt rations," he said.
"I think we might have been surprised on occasion how persistent the attacks were and how enduring the scale of the operation was. I think some may have underestimated the tenacity and ferocity of the Taliban."
The Brigadier's comments came as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime called for Western troops in Afghanistan to attack opium traders, saying the drugs situation there is "out of control".
Opium cultivation rose by 59 per cent this year, according to the UN's figures, to an all-time record of 165,000 hectares.
That leaves a country that is practically run by the West supplying 92 per cent of the world's opium - much of which ends up as heroin.
The UN agency's remarks are stark news for Britain, which at one time was in charge of reducing opium production in Afghanistan.
Around 90 per cent of heroin on British streets comes from Afghanistan.
In the same period of time, opium cultivation in south-east Asia's "Golden Triangle" of Burma, Laos and Thailand, the other major source, fell by 29 per cent.
"You can say that Afghanistan is pretty much out of control," Preeta Bannerjee, a spokeswoman for UNODC said. "Afghanistan is practically... supplying the world's opium. There's also evidence that the country is increasingly hooked on its own opium."
The UN agency is calling for Nato troops and their Afghan allies to attack heroin labs, opium markets and convoys transporting the drug, Ms Bannerjee said yesterday.
But the agency's warning will come as a surprise to no one in Afghanistan, where Western troops already know the opium trade is out of control.
Around 2.9m Afghans are involved in growing opium - 12.6 per cent of the total population - according to the UN's own figures.
Most of those are farmers who scrape only a subsistence living from the opium crop. The majority of the $3bn revenue from the opium industry goes to the warlords who still control it - and to the Taliban, according to UNODC.
The agency warned yesterday that the Taliban are funding their campaign against British and other Nato troops from the opium trade, buying raw opium from farmers and selling it on at a profit.
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