PRAGUE, April 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Defense Secretary Reid's visit to Helmand Province came amid a flurry of Taliban attacks on foreign troops in southern Afghanistan.
Violence has surged since the spring thaw began in southern Afghanistan in March. British troops are thought to be most at risk from roadside bombings and attacks by suicide car bombers. On April 22, a bomb killed four Canadian soldiers in Kandahar Province. Dozens of Afghan troops have been killed along with 13 U.S. soldiers so far this year.
But there have also been attacks of another kind by militants in the south. On several occasions already this year, the Taliban have concentrated groups of about 50 fighters together for bold frontal attacks on Afghan security checkpoints and NATO forward operations bases.
That scenario was repeated overnight on April 24-25 when several dozen Taliban fighters attacked an Afghan police checkpoint in the mountainous Miana Shien district of Kandahar Province -- about 80 kilometers north of Kandahar city. The battle continued into this morning, leaving five Taliban and one policeman dead. Two policemen also were wounded before the militants retreated into the mountains.
Ian Kemp, an independent London-based defense analyst, said such guerrilla tactics are to be expected in Afghanistan's southern mountains.
"Given the difficult nature of the terrain, it is very easy for Taliban forces to concentrate in the mountains in strength and then overwhelm the security forces in a particular location," Kemp said. "And then when [Afghan or U.S.-led coalition] forces move in for the counterattack -- relying upon helicopter gunships and upon fighters to drop bombs -- then the opposition forces can fade away back into the mountains."
U.S. military officials in Afghanistan say coalition warplanes also attacked a suspected Taliban camp in Helmand Province during the night, killing three Taliban fighters.
Britain now has about 1,000 soldiers in Helmand Province and is preparing to deploy a full task force of 3,300 soldiers there by the end of June.
British Defense Secretary Reid visited Helmand's governor, Mohammad Daoud, on April 24 to discuss the deployment. Daoud spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan about his meeting with the British defense secretary.
"The purpose of the visit was to review the British forces already in the area -- and also to see the problems in Helmand Province," Daoud said. "They've promised us they will help us with both the reconstruction and security efforts in Helmand Province."
Poverty Worsens Problem
Daoud said he thinks economic woes in Helmand make it easier for the Taliban to recruit fighters.
"We hope that the international community will cooperate with us in our country and in our province, especially in the training of police, Afghan troop, and other security organizations to increase our working capacity," Daoud said. "But also, especially, we want help with reconstruction so that there are more jobs created for people. The problems in our country -- especially in Helmand Province -- are the result of high unemployment."
Daoud says he received a pledge from Reid for help upgrading a factory in Helmand that produces cooking oil and cotton.
In addition to being one of Afghanistan's most violence provinces, Helmand is a main region for illegal opium farming. U.S. military officials have said that the Taliban is working together with organized drug gangs in Helmand -- complicating international efforts to bring security there and combat the narcotics trade.
Brigadier General Ed Butler, the commander of British troops in Afghanistan, says he expects some setbacks in the weeks ahead. But he also says he thinks there is an opportunity to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans.
(RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Salim Mohammad Saleh contributed to this report from Helmand Province.)
U.S. Marines operating in Helmand Province in 2002 (epa)
RULING A RESTIVE LAND: On February 12, RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Jawaid Wafa spoke briefly with Helmand Province Governor MOHAMMAD DAOUD about the ongoing violence in his restive region on the border with Pakistan.
RFE/RL: Recently, there have been many clashes and attacks by insurgents in Helmand Province. What in your view facilitates these attacks, especially in Helmand?
Mohammad Daoud: This province has a 160-kilometer border with Pakistan's Baluchistan Province. In reality, armed people, armed terrorists, from the other side of the border cross the border into Helmand. They carry out attacks and return back. It is a serious problem in Helmand that within our borders there is neither tribal good will, nor are there are special military or security measures to prevent enemies from crossing back and forth.
RFE/RL: The attacks and clashes have not only been between government forces and insurgents. There have been various clashes in different parts of Helmand between police and purported drug smugglers. How do you explain this?
Daoud: Drug smugglers also use the border for their own purposes. They have opened markets on the border and process opium there. This is a serious problem along our border. We are in touch with our authorities on this problem.
RFE/RL: There are government border police patrol your border. What is their role in preventing illegal crossings?
Daoud: Along this 160-kilometer border, there are car routes, walking routes. We have border police, but unfortunately, either because of their own problems or because of weak administration, they have not been able to stop the crossing.