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Britain's Afghan Commander Hails 'End Of Beginning'

The Kajaki dam in Helmand Province

The Kajaki dam in Helmand Province

KAJAKI, Afghanistan -- The commander of British forces in Afghanistan lauded the successful delivery of a turbine to Helmand Province today, calling it the "end of the beginning" of the campaign against the Taliban.

Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said the secret five-day operation, which he compared to major missions in World War II for its logistical and engineering complexity, had shown the Taliban could be outwitted and did not have popular support.

"It clearly demonstrated that while the Taliban may claim to be the custodians of the Afghan people, the reality was it was their expressed purpose to prevent the turbine arriving in Kajaki," he said, emphasising how the failure undermined them.

"I would sense that in the sweep of the campaign, this marks the end of the beginning. We understand the problems here much more clearly. We have a strategy that looks as though it may work," he told Reuters in an interview.

At the same time, he said Britain should expect to invest military capability in Afghanistan for "certainly another three to five years" if it were to contain the Taliban threat.

The operation involved driving a 200-ton turbine across 160 kilometers of desert and mountain passes in a vast, 100-vehicle convoy that had to be protected by a fleet of attack helicopters and special forces troops on all sides.

Danish Deception

The success of the operation -- with only one wounded among the nearly 5,000 British, American, Canadian, Danish, Australian, and Afghan troops who contributed -- was attributed in large part to a deception carried out by Danish forces.

They drove a similar looking convoy up a separate route west of the one the real convoy took through the desert, diverting the Taliban's attention and allowing them to be outflanked.

"By the time that they were in a position to recognize that they had been spoofed, they had no time to prevent our outmaneuvering on the eastern flank," Carleton-Smith said.

Around 250 Taliban are estimated to have been killed in air strikes and other attacks during the course of the operation.

While it will be at least 18 months before the turbine is installed and producing more power across southern Afghanistan, the fact it has been delivered -- after two years of promises -- and right into the heart of Taliban territory has given a boost to the 8,000 British troops serving in Helmand.

It has not been an easy three months -- 20 British soldiers have been killed since June and the relatively small force is stretched in its ability to secure a province almost the size of Wales -- but the turbine operation has lifted spirits.

Carleton-Smith conceded the Taliban were likely to immediately reoccupy ground they have been driven out of over the past five days as British troops were unable to hold it forever, but he said they had still suffered a strategic defeat.

"Given that [the Taliban] no longer enjoy popular consent from the Afghan people whom are overwhelmingly hostile to them, clearly they no longer represent to that extent a strategic threat to the government," he said. "To do that they would have to harness a popular insurrection, and I get no sense of that today in Helmand."

'Constant Ebb Of Insurgency'

Yet defeating the Taliban, or containing them as Carleton-Smith defines the goal, is only one plank in a broad platform of support that Afghanistan needs, including economic investment, judicial reform and political stability.

"There's always been a sense that we put men on the moon a generation ago, we must be able to light up the Helmand valley. But the reality is that this is an extremely desolate country only now emerging from 30 years worth of conflict.

"It's going to take a lot more investment and considerably more time and energy from the international community at the same time while managing a low-level but relatively constant ebb of an insurgency," Carleton-Smith said.

He said Britain's troops should expect to be employed in the tactical containment of the Taliban for at least the next "three to five years," but the other issues -- rule of law, political stability -- would take decades to resolve satisfactorily.