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British Troops, Taliban In a Tug of War Over Afghan Province
In One Town, a Small Force Battles for Yards of Ground

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.

Taliban insurgents counterattacked with grenades, mortars, machine guns and a mine that disabled one British armored vehicle. But they were pushed back by an onslaught of British artillery, missile strikes by Predator drones, aerial strafing by A-10 fighters, and several 500- and 1,000-pound bombs dropped by U.S. jets.

After months of defending static positions, the three-day operation killed at least 42 Taliban insurgents, extended the British reach several hundred yards into Taliban terrain and succeeded in abating attacks, at least temporarily. Yet in Garmsir, some Afghan elders opposed the British effort to occupy the hill fort near their village, fearing it would draw fire upon their fields and homes.

"All you've done is bring fighting to the area," one village elder scolded, turning his back in a gesture of rudeness, recalled Capt. Andy Richards of Royal Regiment Scotland, who advises local police. "I told them we have to fight the Taliban somewhere, and unfortunately it is in their village," Richards said.

British troops had used culverts to fill in irrigation ditches crossing a dirt road leading past the village to the fort, so their armored vehicles could cross it. But farmers quickly dug the culverts out. "I don't know whether it's out of spite or they may have pinched the pipes," said Lt. Tom Perrott, 26, a troop commander for the King's Royal Hussars.

The continual fighting around Garmsir has impeded efforts to resettle and rebuild the area -- considered too dangerous for civilian aid workers -- and has badly damaged the local bazaar, hospital and other buildings, forcing residents to flee and leaving the district center a virtual ghost town.

In recent months, the sustained British presence has encouraged about 140 Afghans to move back into a relatively protected zone north of the main base. Unable to travel safely, the villagers survive by subsistence farming and selling chickens, goats and produce to the Nepalese Gurkha soldiers based here. But some villagers say they will stay only as long as the British troops remain. "If they go, I will go," said shop owner Abdul Rashid, 25.

Villagers said they fear the Taliban, but doubt that Afghan government forces are strong enough to secure the area. Their views mirrored a December BBC poll of residents of southern Afghanistan that showed perceptions of Taliban strength rising and confidence in the government falling.

Under the Taliban, the town's former agricultural college was used as a madrassa. Allah Dad, a village elder, fled when the Taliban moved in because they demanded that his five sons become fighters. Now back, he is afraid to speak to a reporter lest the Taliban notice and "punish" him, he said.

Local forces are in their infancy, British officers said. Afghan police here consist of a local militia that received two weeks of training, said Richards, the police adviser. Their chief, a charismatic landowner who bought them uniforms and supplies, was killed by a car bomb late last month. They lack body armor, a steady ammunition supply and heavy weapons, and so they are outgunned by the Taliban. Corruption is a temptation because they are paid only $70 to $100 a month. The coalition has moved too slowly to fund and train the police, and it will take "years before we see significant improvement," Richards said.

Afghan Border Police recently arrived in Garmsir, but only 60 men in the 330-strong force have had any training. The force suffers from illiteracy, drug abuse and a shortage of junior leaders. Helmand is a center of Afghanistan's burgeoning opium poppy production -- which helps fund the insurgency -- and poppy farms surround Garmsir. "We frequently believe they are high," said Capt. Spencer Giles, who mentors the sometimes giggly police and has found drug paraphernalia in their living areas and at checkpoints. The Taliban threat is so great that it is inconceivable to move the border police south of Garmsir. Sending them to the real border "would essentially be sending them to their death," Giles said.

'You Need More Troops'

Beyond Garmsir, Taliban fighters have established a stronghold that stretches for miles along the banks of the Helmand River. There, they live with their families and farm poppies and other crops in the broad strip of cultivated land known as the "green zone."

Farther south where the river bends to the west is in an area known as the "fishhook," a possible destination for Marines deploying to the province. The Marines will be headquartered in Kandahar but will operate as needed across the south and possibly in one western province, U.S. officials said.

"To have an effect further south, you need more troops," Milford said. By keeping his force occupied, he said, the Taliban "have free rein up east to Lash [Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gar] and the rest of Afghanistan, and similarly on the west, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it."

But Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, is adamant that the Marines are not "the cavalry" coming to the rescue of British, Dutch, Canadian and other allied forces in southern Afghanistan. The British force in Helmand is expected to grow by the equivalent of another battalion this summer and has gained ground in parts of northern Helmand.

British soldiers said that the Marines will help block the flow of fighters from Pakistan and shrink the Taliban sanctuary, but that more resources are needed to defeat the insurgency. "It's not going to end the war in Helmand, but it will go a long ways towards it, hopefully," Moran said.

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