Babaji hailed as a triumph but the real test is yet to come

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THE biggest operation for months in the most dangerous province in Afghanistan, and the "Battle for Babaji" has already been billed as a spectacular triumph. In one way it is.

More than 500 of the fiercest soldiers on earth have swept into a patch of land and obliterated the Taleban who dared to resist them.

But the real test is what happens next. British forces have won every set-piece battle against the Taleban since they deployed to Helmand in 2006. Yet three years into a campaign that has claimed 169 lives, they are still launching major ground offensives to retake districts just a few miles from their headquarters.

Senior Nato officers at the headquarters in Kabul liken operations like these to squeezing a balloon. The Taleban melt away only to regroup somewhere else.

Babaji sits almost exactly half way between the two biggest towns in Helmand, Lashkar Gah and Gereshk. Those towns were supposed to act as ink spots of security, that would spread across the map and eventually join up. Even now the land either side of Babaji is in Taleban control.

It is now up to the Afghan police earmarked to move into the Black Watch's new bases not to rob the people they are sent to protect. They don't have a very good track record.

It is up to the Afghan government to make their rule more appealing than the Taleban's. That means not demanding bribes at almost every level of officialdom. They also don't have a very good track record.

At the moment everyone is focused on the elections scheduled for 20 August, which President Hamid Karzai looks set to win. Whatever happens on polling day, the British must be hoping it's not four more years of the same. At the very least, by storming into Babaji, British forces have seized back the initiative after a grim run of gunfights and roadside bombs that have cost 32 lives this year.

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