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Afghanistan: Opium wars
British troops have begun deploying in a Taliban-dominated area riddled with corruption and tribal rivalries, where the only industry is growing poppies. Tom Coghlan reports from Grishk and Lashkargar, Helmand Province
"Would the British let us send soldiers to take over their country?" The mood among the group of men on the banks of the Helmand River was menacing. All claimed to be Taliban fighters.
"If one Talib is in a village, the infidels bomb the whole village and kill innocent people," their leader went on. "The British should come and fight us face to face and stop using their planes. They have been here three times and been nicely beaten three times," he added, referring to ill-fated British imperial adventures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. "If there were two million foreign soldiers, we would defeat them if they fought us face to face."
There are already frequent clashes: yesterday Afghan security forces said they had attacked Taliban militants in a cave complex north of Lashkargar, capital of the anarchic southern province of Helmand, where the deployment of 3,500 British soldiers is gathering pace. Two Taliban fighters were said to have been killed and weapons seized.
Tomorrow comes a less-heralded but no less significant British military commitment to the country. With the beginning of May, the British-led Nato command structure known as the ARRC (Allied Rapid Reaction Corps) starts operating from Kabul. It is the first phase in a gradual integration of the entire foreign military presence in Afghanistan under Nato leadership.
By early next year, 14,000 American troops will have been incorporated into the Nato force. A British lieutenant-general, David Richards, will command, the first time US forces have served under the theatre-wide leadership of a foreign general since 1945.