Britain stirs clan lords to fight Taliban
BRITISH military commanders say they are close to securing a significant tribal uprising against the Taliban.
It could lead to the reintegration of hundreds of insurgents fighting around Sangin, the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.
British officials have spent more than a year in negotiations with tribal groups in and around the rebel town in Helmand province, where more than 100 British troops have been killed.
The number of violent attacks in Sangin has fallen by about 80 per cent in the past month. British commanders say this is partly the result of tribal leaders delivering on a promise to restrain tribal fighters aligned with the Taliban and to expel the insurgents.
“We have been pushing for this for 12 months,” said Colonel Paul James, commander of the 40 Commando battlegroup, stationed in Sangin.
“The tribes have responded positively. They are certainly not fighting us.”
The surge of NATO forces, led by the arrival of a US Marine Corps battalion that has blocked the main routes into Sangin, has been important.
Violence had started to decline before Western and Afghan forces mounted offensives around Sangin. Codenamed Operation Sangin Sunrise, the assaults were designed to expel hardline Taliban fighters from the area.
Colonel James denied the gains were temporary. “Having a battalion of US Marine Corps, on top of a UK Commando battalion, is frankly decisive,” he said.
Local defence initiatives by the tribes were expected to offset the subsequent reduction in foreign forces, he said.
From up to 30 Taliban attacks a day at the end of June, there are now fewer than half a dozen raids daily. On July 29, there were no attacks.
Brigadier Richard Felton, the commander of Task Force Helmand, described the apparent shift in tribal loyalties as promising but said: “Like a lot of things in Afghanistan it doesn’t mean they will definitely deliver.”
When an attempted uprising against the Taliban near Sangin failed in 2007, British forces were blamed for not offering support.
“I don’t think it was recognised last time as an opportunity. I don’t think ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force) was in a position to support it. I think that opportunity now exists again,” Colonel James said. British officials believe a respected and non-corrupt new district governor in Sangin, Mohammad Sharif, has been a significant factor in changing the dynamics in the area.
Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the Helmand governor, said: “Some of the tribes around Sangin have turned back from the Taliban and have begun supporting the government.”
Mr Ahmadi said several factors had contributed to the shift. One was the replacement of government officials in Sangin after a 20-day consultation with tribal leaders, another was growing revulsion with the Taliban’s cruelty, such as the hanging in June of a seven-year-old child accused of spying for the Western forces.
Tribal sources inside Sangin appeared to confirm the shift. One tribal elder said: “Before, tribes gave space to the Taliban fighters, gave food, support in the night. Now they are not letting them into the irrigated areas around Sangin.”
British Prime Minister David Cameron has confirmed his intention to withdraw British troops from combat roles in Afghanistan by 2015. Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen followed suit yesterday, saying he hoped Danish troops could pull back from frontline duties before 2015.