"What our latest report shows is that the perception of the local people has changed too," Reinert said. "And they now see the Taliban as acceptable. So actually the Taliban are about to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the local population."
And the Taliban are now better organized, he said. "We're talking about attacks being conducted every day. We're talking about a rise in suicide bombings, from five in 2004 to 21 in just the first semester of 2006. We're talking of a sophistication of terror techniques used, for example in the explosive devices used. So there is definitely a change in the way the insurgents are organizing their operations."
The Taliban could be gaining in strength with support from groups across the border in Pakistan, Reinert said.
"What is sure is that the Taliban and other groups are regrouping on the borders, in Pakistan, where they find safe haven and where they can organize attacks on the Kabul government forces in Helmand and Kandahar."
British troops being sent into the south of Afghanistan to replace U.S. troops in Helmand district have a tough task ahead of them, Reinert told media representatives earlier.
"According to our report, about 80 percent of the population in Helmand supports the Taliban. The British troops will need to regain control, and for this they will need a different approach," he said. "That approach will have to be to listen to people and their needs."
The aggressive military intervention so far by U.S. troops and their supporters has meant that the coalition forces have "lost the support of the local people," Reinert said. And people have gained little from the occupation, he said. "So much was promized, and so little has been delivered."
The report released Tuesday says that attacks on people's livelihoods through poppy eradication, the killing of civilians including women and children in military operations, and a sense of abandonment and exclusion have led to a complete breakdown of trust and support for the international military.
The aggressive, large-scale forced eradication of poppy crops in Helmand, led by the U.S., has significantly contributed to local discontent, says the report, entitled "Helmand at War: The changing nature of insurgency in Southern Afghanistan and its effects on the future of the country."
"I have been cultivating opium for 27 years, and always it was peacefully. I was only cultivating two to three jeribs, only to survive ... they eradicated everything, everything that I had ... Nothing was left. Everybody witnessed it," farmer Sher Mohammad from the district of Sharwale in Helmand is quoted as saying in the report.
A jerib is a local unit of the land measurement equal to roughly half an acre.
Despite the eradication campaigns which have been carried out in the past months, the opium harvest is expected to be even higher this year than in the past, with many farmers who had stopped growing poppy in past years returning to it, the Senlis report says. They had stopped either in respect of the ban decreed by President Hamid Karzai or because they were promized they would receive help from alternative livelihood schemes financed by the international community.
Helmand already has the largest area under cultivation in Afghanistan -- accounting for 25 percent of the country's total poppy cultivation in 2005. The research also indicated a predicted increase in 2006 of 50 percent, with opium cultivation reaching 40,000 hectares.
The council said that there is a direct connection between the neglect of the farmers' interests and the failure to address their extreme poverty, and the state of war in Helmand now.
The report notes that many factors have led to the disintegration of confidence in the international community and the central government. For one, foreign troops are perceived of as not valuing the lives of Afghan citizens, with an increasing number of cases of civilian deaths or injuries at the hands of the coalition military.
Additionally the United States' unilateral bombing of Kandahar undermined the civilian population's support for the Karzai government, the council says in its report. It said the recent riots in Kabul were also an example of the increasing hostility of the Afghan people toward the international community.
"Helmand is an early warning of what the whole of Afghanistan could become if a radically different approach is not taken in the coming months," said Reinert.
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June 13, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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