Study says ‘ignorant’ troops alienated local people and the Taliban are likely to try to retake the Afghanistan province
Under intense pressure from British and US troops, the Taliban have been demoralised and put on the back foot in the Afghan province of Helmand; yet they have proved remarkably resilient, and will try to “retake” the province once foreign forces withdraw, at the end of next year, according to a study published in the influential International Affairs journal .
The study, based on 53 interviews with Taliban commanders and fighters in Helmand, and published on Wednesday, contains damning criticism of the way British commanders sent thousands of their soldiers there in 2006. “Far from helping to secure Helmand, the arrival of the British triggered a violent intensification of the insurgency,” it says.
A high level of casualties has produced widespread support among field commanders for ceasefire talks, but the resilience of the insurgency and the growing influence of Taliban military commissions in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar means they are “unlikely to give ground easily in negotiations”, says Theo Farrell, one of the study’s authors.
Farrell, head of the war studies department at King’s College London, and Antonio Giustozzi, visiting professor at the department, have published the study in the Chatham House thinktank’s journal. They warn: “What we find is an insurgency that is driven both by a strong unifying strategic narrative and purpose – jihad against foreign invaders – and by local conflict dynamics: rivalry between kinship groups and competition over land, water and drugs.
“The manner of the Taliban return to Helmand shows clear intent to retake the province,” the authors say.
The Taliban crept back into Helmand after the US-led air strikes in 2001, with small vanguards secretly preparing the way for larger groups to follow.
Farrell and Giustozzi add: “By arriving with insufficient force, aligning themselves with local corrupt power-holders, relying on firepower to keep insurgents at bay and targeting the poppy crop, the British made matters worse.
“Far from securing Helmand, British forces alienated the population, mobilised local armed resistance and drew in foreign fighters seeking jihad.”
They describe British troops as “blindly ignorant of the local politics underpinning [the insurgency]”.
“Indiscriminate use of fire by British forces alienated locals who were driven from their homes or lost family members,” they write. “The pressure on what remained an undermanned force meant that the British lacked the presence and tactical patience to develop ties in most communities, and still had to rely on artillery and air power to get out of trouble.”
An added cause of local resistance was the attempt by the British to eradicate opium production. The Taliban took advantage of this by promising to protect landowners and farmers from poppy-eradication programmes, thereby winning local support, they say.
“It was in this climate of gathering jihad that young Helmandi men flocked to the Taliban … the British presence made it far easier to recruit local fighters.”
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