“Of course we think they are supporting the Taleban,” said shopkeeper Saad Alikhi in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province. “When the international troops first came here, they cleaned up all the Taleban, all over Afghanistan, within a month. Now I find there’s a mine exploding in front of my shop.”
Security has plummeted across Helmand since UK troops arrived three years ago, and ordinary people have watched the Taleban grow stronger.
Many are struggling to understand why Britain, with all the buildings because there are mines everywhere,” said Colonel Abdul Ghafour, a former head of Helmand’s police. “Everywhere there are Taleban.”
Wild conspiracy theories are rife in Lashkar Gah’s bazaars, but the prevalence of the myth that Britain has been helping the insurgents is evidence of how far UK troops still have to go to convince local people they are there to help.
I travelled to Lashkar Gah, un-embedded, to find out what ordinary people thought about the spiralling violence. It was the first time a British journalist had visited Helmand without a military escort for almost a year. And the number of seemingly sane people who said they thought Britain was supporting the Taleban was astonishing.
Haji Maulavi Mokhtar, the head of Lashkar Gah’s council of religious scholars, admitted the myth was firmly embedded in the “popular consciousness”. He said: “Even among government officials, it has made them hopeless, they told me secretly.”
For three years, British troops have been over-stretched and under-resourced, battling to contain the Taleban in their spiritual and financial heartland.
Most of Britain’s fighting soldiers were stuck patrolling the ground outside their bases. When they did clear areas of the Taleban, they had to fight elsewhere and couldn’t stay.
Shopkeeper Abdul Karim told me: “In the past seven years, no-one has been punished for any crime. And the aid money which is coming into the country disappears. The taxes which the government collects just go into private pockets, not to the poor people you see here.
“If they do not punish corruption in the government bureaucracy and bring justice and punish criminals, I swear that in the next 50 years, they cannot bring security. Even in a hundred years.”
He had fond memories of Taleban rule. “The Taleban are the enemies of the international community, but they were good for the welfare of ordinary Afghans, for poor people like us,” he said. “In Taleban times, there was punishment for criminals. They didn’t mind executing people, or cutting off their hands, so from one lesson, a hundred others would learn.”
Police had closed the road in front of his shop because they had discovered two homemade bombs in yellow plastic jerry cans in a culvert nearby. They were wired to a mobile phone.
“We do not understand,” he said. “When the Americans were based here, when Sher Mohammed was the governor, the Taleban were not in Helmand.
Since that time, when the Americans withdrew, and new governors came, and the PRT ]provincial reconstruction team] was handed over to the British, the fighting got much worse.”
Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who was governor of Helmand when the British troops first deployed in 2006, was removed at the insistence of Whitehall after he was linked to human rights abuses and implicated in the heroin trade
One former diplomat said the people in Helmand couldn’t believe the British were “making it worse by accident”. He said: “People there think the British are powerful, clever and cunning. They remember the legends of Great Gamesmen from the 19th century, and they assume if the Taleban are getting stronger, it must be part of the plan.”
However, the overwhelming impression is that people want justice and peace, and they don’t mind who brings it.