Taliban battles on with bombs
Ten days ago, in this dusty town in Helmand, the Taliban banner was torn down and replaced with the Afghan national flag, a highly publicised celebration of the capture of Showal, where the insurgents had been running their “shadow government” for the Marjah region.
A week later, 20 metres from that newly hoisted flag, a roadside bomb exploded under a British truck.
The device was planted on the main route into the town centre some time previously but the battery pack had been connected overnight, the telltale sign being a mound of fresh earth covering the twisted white electrical flex.
One British officer noted the “sheer neck” of the Taliban in daring to activate the device in the presence of coalition troops.
Fortunately, only the detonator and a small portion of the charge had gone off, for the full 30lbs would have made short shrift of the truck's crew and of others nearby.
But the violence in the area, which was hailed as one of the first to be retaken in Operation Moshtarak, was a potent reminder that this war is far from over and many of the Taliban fighters have lived to fight another day.
If more evidence were needed, 24 hours later, on Wednesday, another improvised explosive device (IED) was found on the same road. And a shura, or public meeting, taking place in the same area near Shaheed came under fire, setting off a gun battle.
But it cannot be said that a counter-offensive has started, that the Taliban are co-ordinating a massive response to what has been billed as the biggest Nato operation since the war began in 2001.
The Taliban attacks, so far at least, have been sporadic, but they are designed to send a message that the insurgency is alive in this area, which is not only of great symbolic significance but is also a strategic arms and heroin depot for the militants, and a sanctuary where attacks can be planned and then launched elsewhere.
Operation Moshtarak began almost two weeks ago, heralding the start of Washington's much-trailed Afghan “surge”, and the stakes could not be higher in what is now very much Barack Obama's war. The military push is to be followed by reconstruction and development, and a return of civic society.
In Showal, the insurgents fought fierce skirmishes to keep British and Afghan government troops away. Around 200 IEDs were found, some planted, others primed, another half-dozen had gone off. But they were outmanoeuvred by an air assault carried out by the 1 Royal Welsh Battle Group and had no answer to far superior Western firepower.
While the British and Afghan
government forces prevailed relatively quickly, in Marjah the US Marines are still fighting, and paying a bloody price, to take control of the last remaining Taliban redoubt. However, as American and British officials have stressed, the immediate and more important challenge is not on the battlefield but in winning over the population and establishing the
credibility of Hamid Karzai's government.
“I am convinced that the Taliban will come back here, we will see a lot of violence. There will be a lot of difficult days for coalition forces because the insurgents are not rolling over,” he said. “But the main task is winning the trust of the people. It's like we have a huge task in front of us. But we have figured out how to make it work.”
In Showal, very few people said they wanted the return of Taliban rule but not all the Talibs were viewed as brutal oppressors, as they can often be depicted in the simplistic school of Western analysis.
This, in fact, should be a source of encouragement to Nato, given their new policy of reintegrating militants who are prepared to lay down their guns.