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Afghan offensive: what does it hope to achieve?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 31 July 2010

International Editor Lindsey Hilsum travels to the village of Chah-e-Anjir to see what the British military hopes to achieve through the latest operation in Afghanistan.

British soldiers in Nad-e-Ali, Afghanistan (credit:Getty Images)

British forces are said to be making good progress on the second day of their operation against Taliban insurgents in southern Afghanistan.

Operation Black Prince began before dawn yesterday, centered on the town of Saidabad in Helmand province. The aim is to secure the area - notorious as a centre for insurgents making bombs and planning attacks.

The aim is to make Saidabad like the village of Chah-e-Anjir where British reconstruction teams have been working for a year, says Lindsey Hilsum. The local pharmacy there is pretty pathetic, but across the village, a new clinic is about to open – British-funded, Afghan government run.

The idea is that people will see projects like this and decide it is better to live under government not Taliban rule, but it is not easy.

"Their priorities are worlds apart from what ours might be," says Warrant Officer Gareth Davies. "Medical facilities, they seem to appear relatively low on their particular priority list. Every time we ask them, things like security will always be there relatively high up the list. But anything to do with religion, regenerating mosques, that is where their priority is going to be."

Operation Tor Shezada, Helmand, Afghanistan

Will the strategy win the war?
The British strategy is to drive the Taliban out of the villages and then begin projects which can make a quick impact, such as wells, cash-for-work schemes and clearing irrigation ditches, writes Lindsey Hilsum from Afghanistan.

Then they try to start development projects, hoping that the people will decide that their lives are better under government rather than Taliban control.

The strategy sounds fine, but as I watched troops fanning out into the reeds and irrigation ditches of central Helmand today, I kept thinking about the bigger picture.

Everyone here knows that the foreigners will leave in the end - and many say they look forward to that day. The Taliban are still not necessarily regarded as enemies, regardless of how many clinics the Afghan government builds with British money.

Elsewhere the Taliban are gaining ground. Pretty much everyone accepts now that there will have to be negotiations.

The British will doubtless capture the village of Saidabad, possibly without even a skirmish. But it won't help win a war being waged in many different areas in Afghanistan. A war which many believe is unwinnable.

The District Governor holds a weekly meeting with his new Administrative committee. Today the man from the ministry of education is presenting his first annual plan. The British are trying to create a bureaucracy, a functioning government. The governor, they say, is the key.

Nad-e-Ali district governor Habibullah Khan said: "In any area where we're clearing out the enemy, after the operation we have a big meeting. The people need security, so we request them to help us, and they're very keen. I take my team with me and tell them to listen to the people so we can start reconstruction, rebuilding and development."

But, says Lindsey Hilsum, we still have to travel everywhere by armoured vehicle - the Taliban have been driven from the villages but they are never far away.

More on Operation Black Prince from Channel 4 News:
- Afghan offensive: scarcely a shot fired 
- Operation Tor Shezada: why the Taliban won't fight
- British fatalities in Afghanistan

Around the district centre of Nad-e-Ali, people can move freely, the bazaar is back and the government holds sway.

The British see Nad-e-Ali as one of their successes, and certainly over the last year security is better, but people say it is still dangerous to go out at night and some of them say they just want foreigners to leave.

"The first five or six years of the Karzai government were very good because it was just the Afghan government and there was security," one said. "Then the Taliban government came, and that was also good. In those days at night you could even carry a bag of money, there were no thieves."

The British have repaired the mosque, which the Taliban once used as a gun emplacement. It is a project the old men like, but they have seen foreigners come and go, and governments rise and fall. It is hard to convince them that this government and these foreigners will be any different.

Operation Tor Shezada: the Taliban won't fight

Some TV news channels will no doubt present the current Operation Tor Shezada (Black Prince), in southern Afghanistan in the same, ludicrous fashion as they reported Operation Moshtarak earlier in the year in Helmand. Or Operation Panther’s Claw before that.

The story is not about how big or long or fat or noisy the current operation is. Because the current operation is almost irrelevant in its significance, writes Channel 4 News chief correspondent Alex Thomson.

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