Senior soldier says number of attacks on British troops have fallen but he expects them to rise again in summer
The opium poppy harvest in southern Afghanistan means insurgents have temporarily laid down their weapons so there are fewer Taliban-led attacks on British troops, a senior army spokesman said today.
"The reduction in insurgent activity ... is a sign the poppy harvest is in full swing and therefore a great deal of young men are involved in harvesting," said Major General Gordon Messenger. He warned that attacks could be expected to rise once the harvest was over. Official figures show the number of British casualties is relatively low in the spring but increases significantly during the summer.
Messenger was speaking at a briefing in London on the latest situation in central Helmand province, where 9,500 British troops are engaged in counter-insurgency and reconstruction. He disclosed that Royal Marines were recently attacked there by a child suicide bomber.
The general conceded that revenue from the lucrative narcotics trade remained "as important as ever" to the Taliban-led insurgency. However, he said, disrupting it was not a matter for Nato troops, but for the Afghan authorities.
How to eradicate opium poppies in Afghanistan, which produce some 90% of the opium reaching Europe, has been a highly controversial and divisive issue ever since the collapse of the Taliban and the deployment of Nato troops in 2001. Initial Americans proposals to spray the crop were strongly opposed by Afghan leaders. Now Afghan governors in Helmand are eager to get rid of the poppies but Nato commanders are concerned about a backlash from the local population. A programme to distribute seeds for alternative crops is under way.
Messenger yesterday revealed that marines from 40 Commando patrolling in Sangin were approached on 14 April by a child suicide bomber aged between 12 and 14. The boy killed himself, and a marine and an interpreter suffered minor injuries. The threat from suicide bombers in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's provincial capital, was described by British military officials yesterday as "enduring".
In Marjah, the main target of Operation Moshtarak, the biggest Nato offensive so far, intimidation by Taliban supporters was still a key factor, Messenger said. But he added that the number of tip-offs to Nato and Afghan forces was increasing, schools were opening and main road routes were getting more secure.
Troops from the Royal Regiment of Scotland today hailed Ajab Han, a sergeant in the Afghan army, for discovering 177 roadside bombs in Helmand, a record for an individual soldier.
The praise came as Nato foreign ministers meeting in Tallin, the Estonian capital, agreed on conditions to start handing over security responsibility to Afghan forces later this year.
"The Afghan security forces will need our assistance for quite some time," Nato's secretary general, Anders Rasmussen, said, "so it will be a gradual process."
April 23, 2010