KANDAHAR: There is only silence in Garmser, a ghost town on the edge of the desert in southern Afghanistan. The bazaar is a lonely line of abandoned shops and debris-strewn streets. There is just one trader – a baker – whose sole customers are British soldiers and Afghan police. Further out, giant bomb craters dot the broken gardens and shredded fruit orchards of empty houses. Now they are inhabited by the British.
Squatting on a rickety rooftop, Corporal Lachlan MacNeil pointed to a cluster of long, low buildings. “That’s the madrasa [Islamic school]. It’s a training camp for the Taliban,” he said, his face glistening from the morning heat. “Mostly foreigners inside, we hear – central Asians and Arabs, but especially Pakistanis.” For many Taliban fighters, this deserted, dog-eared town is where the war starts. Garmser is the gateway to Afghanistan for insurgents who stream across the border from Pakistan, 120 miles to the south. The British base here is their first encounter with the “infidels”.
“They blood themselves against UK forces here, then graduate into the upper valleys,” said Major Neil Den-McKay, officer commanding of a Scottish infantry company stationed at Garmser’s agricultural college. The fighters that pass before the British doorstep are as diverse as the Taliban has become. There are hard-bitten ideologues from the original Taliban movement of the 1990s, hired local fighters known as “$10 Taliban”, Baluch drug smugglers and al-Qaida- linked Arabs.
But most, Afghan and British officials say, are Pakistani – ideologically driven young men who consider the war as a religious obligation of struggle, or jihad. “Our understanding is that the madrasas of northern Pakistan are a major breeding ground that provide the bulk of brainwashed Taliban fighters,” said Lieutenant Colonel Nick Borton, commanding officer of Battlegroup South.
Up to 60% of the fighters in Garmser are Pakistani, the Afghan intelligence chief in Garmser, Mir Hamza, said. They come from militant hot spots such as Waziristan and Swat, but also from Punjab, a rich agricultural province with a history of producing radical Islamists. “Sometimes the Pakistanis have trouble communicating with local [Pashto-speaking] fighters, because they only speak Urdu or Punjabi,” he said.
Inside Afghanistan the fighters thunder across the Dasht-i-Margo – a harsh expanse of ancient smuggling trails which means “desert of death” – before reaching the river Helmand. Here, the sand turns to lush fields of poppy and wheat, and they reach Garmser, home to the most southerly British base in Helmand. A wall-sized map in the British base shows the balance of forces. The British control the town centre; the Taliban a sprawl of mud-walled farmhouses that spills south and east. With its irrigation canals, world war one-style trenches and thick vegetation, the area makes for fine guerrilla ground. “This is one of the few places in Afghanistan where there is a visible frontline,” said Captain Ross Boyd, sitting in an outpost surrounded by barbed wire.
Last week US marines joined the battle, sending more than 1,000 troops to punch through the Taliban lines around Garmser. Their mission is to disrupt the two-way traffic of fighters scooting north and opium shipments headed south. The Americans met with sporadic, but dogged resistance. Black-clad fighters ambushed them with small arms and rocket propelled grenades, drawing deadly ripostes from helicopter gunships and fighter jets.
The combat continued yesterday as American heavy guns pounded Taliban positions near Garmser. At the British base, the UK’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, had a taste of the action. As he was being briefed on the fighting, Taliban machine gun fire erupted close to the camp. The exchange ended when British attack helicopters and mortars opened fire on the suspected Taliban positions.
British officers say they have ample evidence that many of the enemy are Pakistani. While remaining coy about their sources of intelligence, they speak of hearing Punjab accents and of finding Pakistani papers and telephone contacts on dead fighters. Four months ago, Den-McKay said, British Gurkhas shot dead a Taliban militant near a small outpost known as Hamburger Hill. Searching the fighter’s body, they discovered a Pakistani identity card and handwritten notes in Punjabi.
The issue of cross-border infiltration has vexed relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghan officials say that Islamabad at best turns a blind eye to the flow, at worst encourages it. Last Wednesday, Afghanistan’s intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, alleged that an assassination attempt against President Hamid Karzai the previous weekend had been hatched in Pakistan’s tribal areas. He said the attackers had been “receiving orders from the other side of the border until the last moments”.
The debate has a very different tone in Pakistan. A spate of Islamist bombs has rocked major cities in the past year. But Pakistanis blame the American and Nato aggression in Afghanistan for inflaming Islamist passions, and see the Taliban as an expression of Pashtun nationalism. Pakistanis are also suspicious of the proliferation of Indian consulates in southern Afghanistan. In Garmser, the Scottish infantrymen hope to push the Taliban back and fill the town with people again. The continuing marine operation may help that objective.
But the main British effort is concentrated in northern Helmand, and local governance is weak in Garmser, where most of the town elders and administrators have fled to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. And as the poppy harvest draws to a close, commanders expect a fresh spurt of fighting in the coming weeks. Combined with the stream of Taliban from Pakistan, British officers recognise they are only holding the line. “I’m under no illusions. We are not stopping the movement north,” said Den-McKay. “We’re just giving them something to talk about.”-SANA