Kabul: Afghanistan’s southern Helmand province, where Britain’s Prince Harry has been combating the Taliban, is a harsh battleground where extremists have teamed up with powerful opium lords.
It has also proven to be deadly terrain for British troops who moved into the province in early 2006 and fought hard to establish pockets of control at great cost, most of the nearly 90 British troops lost in Afghanistan since the Taliban defeat in 2001 were killed in Helmand.
The British have been stretched to their limits, facing some of their most intense fighting in decades, worse than in Iraq, some say, with complaints from commanders of a shortage in helicopters and other hardware.
Harry’s deployment in the province, where most of Britain’s 7,700 soldiers are stationed, makes him the first British royal to be sent on active duty in more than a quarter-century.
Helmand’s vast desert of powder-fine and often-scorching sand stretches to the unregulated border with Pakistan.
The border is a crossing point for fresh Taliban fighters and weapons into the country and, in the other direction, opium headed out to international drugs markets.
The new supplies often move up through the district of Garmser where Harry, 23-year-old grandson of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and third in line to the throne, spent several weeks after flying out in mid-December.
He was brought in for a three-month deployment, but that is now in question after news of his presence leaked out.
Garmser is also a blooding ground for Taliban recruits who, officers have told AFP, often have their first encounters here with the international forces helping the Afghan government restore order after decades of lawlessness.
The roughly 150 British troops in Garmser, many of them Gurkhas, are based in the ruins of a former madrassa and agricultural college.
One of their fortresses is atop a mound of earth built by British soldiers in Afghanistan around 100 years ago during the three Anglo-Afghan wars, which Afghans remember as a proud resistance to an attempted invasion.
From there the Taliban fighters move into Helmand’s other hotspots, such as Kajaki, the site of massive hydropower dam, and Sangin, where the British military says it has brought some stability after months of bitter conflict.
Prince Harry, son of Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana, has left Garmser to work in another part of Helmand, although further details cannot be reported for security reasons.
The prince, who is serving in the Household Cavalry, has been working as a battlefield air controller.
Afghan officials admit Taliban fighters in the province include hundreds of foreign “jihadists”; and they acknowledge that at least three of its more than a dozen districts are in the control of the rebels.
The town of Musa Qala was in Taliban hands for 10 months until December, becoming a base for the hardliners who implemented there the harsh version of justice they imposed during their 1996-2001 rule, including executions.
Afghan and British soldiers led the campaign that recaptured Musa Qala in December, and say they will move into the other districts too.
The intensity of the fighting is tied to Helmand’s lucrative illegal opium crop: the province produces most of Afghanistan’s opium which accounts for 90% of world supply and is worth about four billion dollars annually.
The opium and linked heroin production contribute funds for the insurgency, partly through a “tax” imposed on farmers, sometimes a fee to protect crops from eradication and during transportation.
In a sign of the relationship, fierce fighting erupted this week between a government drugs eradication team that was guarded by police and the Taliban, who were protecting opium poppies.
The clash left 29 Taliban dead, officials said.