The Taliban may not be strong enough to hoist their flag over central Helmand but they can still raise a radio mast. There are two of them in Babaji. Just a mile and a half south of the nearest British Army outpost, the slender antennas on top of a muddy mound are rare landmarks in a battle for influence that lacks any front lines. Made from bamboo canes crudely lashed together, the masts mark the edge of a modest security bubble that British and allied Afghan troops are trying to push outwards from their patrol base in the midst of Helmands farming heartland. The tips of the antennas tower 30m over the fields. They first appeared on Boxing Day. For the farmers and their families who forge a meagre living tilling opium poppies and wheat, they are a constant reminder of the competing claims for their allegiance. The Taliban will beat me for talking to the infidels, Mir Ahmad told British soldiers on patrol a few hundred metres from the mound that they call Re-Bro Hill. His two young sons clasped radios and sweets that the British troops had given them, but Mir Ahmad was anxious to leave. When the Taliban come here its not one or two guys, its groups of five or six, he said. The soldiers and insurgents are in direct competition for the support of men such as Mir Ahmad, but neither group is strong enough to have a permanent presence in his mud-walled hamlet. The Taliban say you are infidels and you dont care about our religion, he said. They say its a holy war. Back towards the patrol base, the Coldstream Guards have paid to refurbish a mosque, a simple single-storey building without a minaret, with new carpets and loudhailers to counter Taliban propaganda and to build relations with local elders. Farther afield though, in the shadow of the antennas, development is virtually non-existent. You promised us help many times, but we didnt see anything, said Wali Jan, a farmer in his fifties. We dont want money, we just want security. The Taliban can come here whenever they want. If they see us talking to you they will kill us. What happens in Babaji and the neighbouring districts is likely to reflect the success or failure of Natos new counter-insurgency strategy in southern Afghanistan. The area is one of five heavily populated districts in central Helmand identified as Natos main effort. British troops cleared the bulk of the insurgents during Operation Panthers Claw last summer. They built four patrol bases in Babaji and are building a major road to connect the bases and make it easier for farmers to get their crops to market. But the protection they can offer to local people decreases with each step that they travel away from their camp gates. If the Taliban were here and asked me if I support them of course I would say yes, Wali Jan said. The soldiers chatted to him for 20 minutes. He said that he had not seen the Taliban for at least two days but, as we were about to find out, they were close by. Babajis hand-tilled fields are criss-crossed with chest-deep irrigation ditches and are often flanked by trees. When the wheat was high, insurgents could sneak up on patrols, often ambushing them from 30 or 40m away. Today, spring seedlings are just beginning to turn the plots green. It is much harder for the insurgents to get so close; nevertheless it is difficult to project power. At the moment, the geography you can exert yourself over tends to be limited by how far you can go out in a day, with all your kit, and get back," Major Crossen, the battle group Chief of Staff, said. Were constrained by the numbers of Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Commanders say that the mass of soldiers is the key to success. The bulk of the Coldstream Guards battle group, roughly 500 men, plus around 250 Afghan forces and their British mentors from the 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, are working to control an area roughly seven miles long and five miles wide that is home to around 55,000 people. The long-term solution, officers insist, lies in building up this number by adding to the Afghan forces with whom they are currently patrolling. Most of the Afghans deployed in Helmand have had only 12 weeks basic infantry training in Kabul. They are posted to Helmand for three years. Twelve weeks is nowhere near long enough. Lieutenant Theo Gill, 25, who led the mentoring patrol, said. They dont know how to read maps and they dont know how to read and write. When they have been in contact [with the enemy] they want to do a First World War walk across a field. The Afghans are reluctant to take advice, Lieutenant Gill said. This is not surprising. The man he mentors, Captain Nezamuddin Ghafar, who is in his late forties, remembers his Russian trainer from the days when he was a teenage gunner in a Soviet T54 tank. Captain Nezamuddin has been fighting Islamist insurgents of one kind or another, albeit with limited success, for 25 years. We just need artillery, aircraft and heavy weapons. Then well be able to take over, he said with a grin. His troops, who live in a small section of the British base, do not lack the appetite for a fight. Moments after Wali Jan swore that there were no insurgents in his area, bullets from two Kalashnikovs whizzed towards us from an orchard less than 100m away. The British dived for cover. The Afghans did not. Sergeant Salwar made no attempt to hide from the incoming fire. Instead, standing at full height, he swung a machinegun in the direction of the Taleban, continuing to fire long after they had fled and after his commander had ordered him to stop. The two armies have different plans for the Talebans radio mast. We should smash them, Captain Nezamuddin said. We should destroy them with rocket-propelled grenades. Major Crossen said: We just want to make sure that if we strike it, we strike it for the right reasons and we get the right people. But if it makes a lot of difference in terms of the public perception of Taleban governance, we will certainly go and get it. (Afghan soldiers surprised the roadside bombers as they laid a device south of Garmsir. According to one British officer familiar with the incident, there were five bombers. The Afghan army unit that found them had just lost three of their own to a roadside bomb. So three of the Taliban were killed by the road. The architects of the military mission in Afghanistan face a finely balanced set of problems as they try to build up Afghan forces to 400,000 by the end of next year from their current 96,000 soldiers and 89,000 police. The problem so far, according to the American commander of the training mission, Lieutenant-General Bill Caldwell, is that the mission has been under-resourced in Western trainers. That has meant sacrificing quality for quantity on the basis that quantity has a quality all of its own. It does, but only in the short term. Only 15 per cent of Afghan soldiers have any reading ability. The American commander claims however that the situation is changing. About 850 US trainers will arrive this month. Moreover, Afghan police and army are paid a decent wage, about $165 (100) a month against the average government salary of $50. With hazard pay, this can rise to $245. The US foots the bill. This goes some way to explaining why army re-enlistment rates are now 75 per cent and desertion rates for units posted to Helmand have dropped from 45 per cent to about 7 per cent. Another reason is that the Afghan forces are getting good weaponry, body armour and even attack helicopters. Still, there is a particular underlying problem that troubles Western commanders. The ethnic make-up of Afghanistan is complex and fracture lines are not always obvious. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is balanced carefully to include appropriate representation of all ethnicities. However, the representation of Pashtuns, the dominant ethnicity that lives in the insurgency hit areas, is skewed. Only 3-5 per cent of the ANA comes from the southern areas of the country. The Pashtuns in the army are, therefore, overwhelmingly eastern Pashtuns and consequently native Dari speakers rather than of Pashto, spoken in the south. This helps to make the ANA outsiders in the south, and that is a problem. Success is not a foregone conclusion, General Caldwell said. Ultimately it is going to have to be the Afghans themselves who make the difference here. That difference may also mean more suspected members of the Taleban being summarily executed by the road. (The Times)