- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2007

GERESHK, Afghanistan

Bristling with firepower, roll bars and camouflage netting that recall the desert pirates of “Mad Max” movies, members of the British patrol tear across the plain in four-wheel-drive vehicles, leaving a haze of dust in their wake.

Compared to the forces of other NATO countries operating here, their style is fast and loose. Lighter armor allows for better mobility to battle fundamentalist Taliban militants in this frontier province, one of the hardest to tame in Afghanistan.

“We’re a light, mobile, fast-reacting force,” said British Capt. Jeff Lee, a veteran of counterinsurgency campaigns from Iraq to Northern Ireland, noting that only one of his men has been lost this year.

“Get in, get out, and call in the air power to light the ground up if necessary,” he said.

But insurgents have adopted a similar approach to keep NATO coalition forces on edge.

After a string of bloody setbacks in head-on confrontations across the southern provinces over the past year, Taliban forces are increasingly shifting toward remote-detonated bombs, suicide attacks and other hit-and-run tactics in areas where they have regrouped.

A first scheduled trip into Gereshk, a southwestern city in the heart of one of the country’s richest agricultural areas, was delayed by an early-morning suicide strike that killed two Afghan police officers at a bridge checkpoint.

Drugs are largely to blame.

Gereshk sits next to the Helmand River, whose banks cut through two fertile strips of land where an alliance of hard-core Taliban fighters and local farmers has dug in to protect their valuable opium-poppy cash crop. The British have dubbed the area the “green zone,” but it does not provide the same refuge for Westerners as its counterpart in Baghdad.

World opium production in 2006 was 6,000 tons, 92 percent of which came from Afghanistan. Nearly two-fifths of that total comes from Helmand province.

“Just about every time we go into the area we engage [the Taliban],” said Capt. Lee. “Of course, the fighting tends to be most intense wherever opium cultivation is concentrated. You could say it’s more like the ‘red zone.’ ”

Poring over a map at the British forward operating base less than two miles from the river, he said nearly every village on the river has a Taliban presence.

With the poppy harvest now over — and expected to exceed last year’s record haul — hostilities have intensified from Gereshk up to the Sangin Valley, scene of fierce clashes in recent weeks.

NATO forces are trying to drive militants out of the valley to make improvements on the Kajaki Dam. The dam could potentially provide electricity for hundreds of thousands of Afghans, by far the biggest aid project international donors have planned for the country.

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