- 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.

To do so, the road that runs parallel to the river must first be secured to allow delivery of two massive transformers and a turbine for repairs.

“Clearing the valley has been one of our main objectives,” said Lt. Col. Charlie Mayo, a spokesman for British forces in Helmand. “There are still sporadic attacks, and that’s to be expected because [the Taliban] want this area as much as we do.”

The British strategy in the south has been to push up the green zone and force militants to engage.

Typically, this plays out in brief, heated gunbattles with bands of four to eight militants who then recede into the fields and adobe warrens, though officers say larger Taliban clusters appear to popping up in some areas.

Lt. Aaron Browne, a platoon commander who regularly sweeps north with his unit, said that during one recent patrol his men were ambushed by more than two dozen foot soldiers. A gunbattle broke out and the attackers quickly dispersed.

Like their compatriots fighting around the Kajaki Dam, Lt. Browne said, troops in the Gereshk region want to secure agricultural tracts to allow civil development teams to carry out projects such as irrigation ditches and wells. This has proved difficult even in areas where they have ousted the Taliban.

Capt. Lee insists British forces have a “powerful influence” over most of the upper Gereshk Valley, estimating that nearly half of the 300 or so core Taliban fighters in his theater of operations have been killed.

But he concedes that the numbers are an “illusion,” since insurgents have shown a capacity to “inflate and contract” when they are pressured.

An Afghan police guard at the sun-baked prison fort that commands a clear view of the green zone from the heart of Gereshk insisted the Taliban are in control of the upper valley. What appear to be Taliban fighters roam freely in plain view of Afghan and NATO security forces in the markets below, but for the time being a tense calm prevails.

Looking to hold the initiative, British officers held a “shura,” or council, with community elders last month. A school has been built, and other projects, including a bus station and a city park, are in the works.

“They give us their grievances, and we remind them of what we’ve done,” said Capt. Lee, noting the refrigerated morgue his men have just installed in the local hospital. “The more they see they’ve got, the more likely they are to reject the Taliban. Gereshk is a success story.”

But civilian casualties from NATO air strikes and ground attacks have complicated the effort to win over local sympathies. Some of the victims stored in the new refrigerated morgue are not Taliban fighters, but local residents caught in the crossfire.

Just over a week ago, local authorities said, an attack on suspected Taliban militants about eight miles north of Gereshk resulted in the deaths of nine women, three infants and a local Muslim cleric.

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