British Troops, Taliban In a Tug of War Over Afghan Province

Helmand province in Afghanistan has changed hands repeatedly between British and Taliban forces since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001. The British have lost 89 troops in the province, where violence surged 60 percent last year. U.S. Marines are scheduled to deploy to the province this summer.
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008

GARMSIR, Afghanistan -- Perched on the banks of the Helmand River, this desolate town occupied by British forces marks Afghanistan's de facto border: Beyond here, the Afghan government is powerless and Taliban insurgents hold sway, their ranks replenished by recruits who enter unchallenged from Pakistan.

"Everything you see to your south . . . that's all enemy territory," said Lt. Nicholas Moran, a platoon leader from Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, Royal Gurkha Rifles, using binoculars to survey Taliban fighters from the roof of a mud-brick compound east of Garmsir. Seconds later, he ducked as a rocket-propelled grenade whistled overhead.

A small contingent of British troops here is manning a cluster of dusty hill forts, several of them built by the British more than a century ago during the Anglo-Afghan wars. On this stark front line, they wage war against hundreds of insurgents dug into bunkers and ditches running between minefields in the canal system below.

Since 2006, Garmsir and other parts of Helmand province have changed hands between the British and Taliban forces at least three times, largely because there have been too few British ground troops to hold captured territory. Despite Defense Minister John Reid's early hope that 3,000 British forces could pacify Helmand without "firing a shot," the British have lost 89 troops to fighting in the province, where violence surged 60 percent last year, testing NATO's ability to stabilize Afghanistan's ethnic Pashtun heartland.

President Bush will attend a NATO summit this week where he hopes allies will pledge additional combat troops for Afghanistan. In Helmand, even an expanded British-led force of about 7,000 must now concentrate its efforts on the north, while the company in Garmsir controls a small segment of the southern front.

"You can't hold it against them for wanting to repel the invaders," said Warrant Officer 2 Jason Mortimer, 37, manning a sandbag-lined bunker in the ruins of an old British fort here that comes under daily attack. Afghan fighters, he noted, sent the British "packing with a bloody nose" in three wars, starting in 1839.

Today, many British forces here sleep in dirt-floored and mice-infested outposts where they eat boiled rations as well as eggs, chicken and livestock they butcher. The troops are fighting hard but are hindered by insufficient helicopters, intelligence and surveillance equipment, and armored vehicles, officers say.

"Most British soldiers would say we're absolutely knackered out after this and Iraq," said Maj. Mark Milford, commander of Bravo Company, the main British force in Garmsir, which is far outnumbered by the Taliban.

Reinforcements are on the way. Beginning next month, Helmand will be a main destination for thousands of U.S. Marines dispatched to bolster the NATO effort in southern Afghanistan. But the Pentagon has stressed that the seven-month Marine deployment is an "extraordinary one-time" commitment, and British troops say it will not suffice to end the fighting in Helmand, where the population remains wary, local security is fledgling and the Taliban replaces its losses with recruits who pass freely over the Pakistani border about 75 miles to the south.

The shortage of ground troops has led to reliance on airstrikes and artillery barrages, complicating the goal of winning over civilians. Mortimer, who has been deployed to Iraq and Kosovo twice since 2000, sees political dialogue with the Taliban as the only way forward.

"This campaign will drag on and on until we sit down at a table with the Taliban," he said. Otherwise, "we'll drop 1,000-pound bombs and make martyrs of a generation of men in a part of the world that needs its healthy young men."

'If They Go, I Will Go'

During an operation this month to seize two hills -- both old British forts -- near Garmsir, Moran's platoon infiltrated the area in darkness, bridged a canal and, backed by a handful of armored vehicles, captured one hill. Across the Helmand River, another platoon established a foothold on the second hill. Engineers hastily built bunkers of sandbags and dirt-filled barriers atop both positions. "We've pushed out to the east to take on the Taliban in some of their forward positions," Moran said.

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