BRITAIN has now been in command of Nato's International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Afghanistan for one month, long enough for it become clear that the task assigned to this force is rather different from the peace-keeping role originally talked about. The first combat death this week underlined the point. Isaf will eventually have 16'000 military personnel with Britain contributing about 3'300; its orinally-defined task was to provide a sufficient security cover until the Afghanistan security forces can do the job themselves. All the evidence, however, is that there is not as yet any peace to keep, particularly in the Helmand region where the British forces are based. War lords continue to assert themselves in some areas and in others the Taliban is making a bold return and showing a willingness to engage in skirmishes and perhaps more with the Nato troops.
The British approach seems to be to “win hearts and minds” among farmers and villagers but a major difficulty in doing this is the economic reliance of the area on the cultivation of crops that feed the lucrative drugs trade which American policy, in particular, insists should be stopped. There is no substitute crop as profitable and local farmers cannot be expected to think kindly of foreigners who tell them to change their long-established ways. Britain's role in Basra in Iraq was difficult enough. It may well prove that its presence in Afghanistan is even more troublesome and long-lasting.