Marines ride into province of death

By Justin Huggler

ISLAMABAD - Suicide bombings and firefights, Western troops under attack, sectarian clashes, foreigners taken hostage. Escalating violence in the last week has left dozens of people dead and more than 100 injured.

This is not Iraq but Afghanistan, a conflict now more deadly if comparing body counts - 89 killings in the past eight days in Afghanistan compared with 54 in Iraq during the same period.

It is into this maelstrom that the Royal Marines will begin deploying this week in a mission to the southern areas lasting at least three years.

The videos of British soldiers beating and abusing Iraqi civilians will only add to the dangers they face.

The Taleban never really fell in Helmand province, where the Marines are headed. While the outside world was celebrating the end of the Taleban regime in 2001, the regime still controlled of most of Helmand.

It was in Helmand that the Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, took refuge after the fall of Kandahar, and from which he is believed to have staged a dramatic escape on the back of a motorcycle in early 2002.

There were even claims from the Taleban in 2003 that the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, had spent some time on the border between Helmand and neighbouring Nimroz, under the noses of US forces.

When a British security contractor was forced out of his car at gunpoint, taken into the hills and beheaded in the nearby province of Farah last year, there were reports the Taleban insurgents responsible were from Helmand.

Over the past year, Helmand has emerged as one of the main centres of the Taleban insurgency. Although it is only now attracting the attention of the outside world, the Taleban insurgency has been raging in Helmand ever since the original victory of US-led forces in Afghanistan in 2001.

As early as 2002, the insurgents tried to assassinate the Afghan intelligence chief in the province. In 2003, two US soldiers were ambushed and killed by Taleban in the province.

But over the past year the insurgency has rapidly grown in intensity, borrowing tactics from Iraq.

There has been a spate of suicide bombings, beheadings, and attacks on soft targets, where previously the Taleban preferred to attack US and Afghan forces head-on.

The story of why US forces have been unable to score a decisive blow against the Taleban in Helmand is a combination of the nature of the region, and the failure of the US-backed Hamid Karzai Government to do more to reconstruct it.

Unlike Kunar province in the east, another major centre of the insurgency, Helmand does not have a rugged and unpoliceable mountainous border with Pakistan. But it now produces more raw opium than anywhere else in the world. There is no other economy. War has destroyed so much infrastructure that opium poppies are the only viable crop.


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