Troops leave Helmand to an uncertain future

An Afghan election worker stands on a stack of plastic boxes containing election material at a warehouse in Mazar-i-Sharif Voters will elect a new national president and provincial councils

Afghan forces in Helmand in the south-west of the country are struggling to provide security for Saturday's elections.

During fighting in the last few months, the police lost 400 men - their worst losses in the winter since the conflict began.

Qudratullah Naqshbandi, the head of the Independent Election Commission, says it will not be possible to open polling stations in a third of the province.

Much of the countryside in the north of Helmand is now in the hands of the Taliban.

At the same time, the annual attempt to destroy the opium poppy crop is under way. Resin in the seed heads of the poppies is the raw material for opium.

Poppy farmers in a field Poppy farmers and police are united on one thing: without alternatives, farmers will not give up the crop

The counter-narcotics chief, Acting Colonel Mohammed Abdali, says that the money to buy fuel for the tractors and pay the workers who destroy the crop has not been paid by the central government.

There was a record harvest last year, the last year in which there was a substantial UK and US troop presence.

Colonel Abdali says that he will not be able to destroy more than a very small fraction of the more than 100,000 hectares thought to have been planted. Driving an armoured Humvee donated by the US, which has bullet marks on every window, he said that he had to fight the Taliban every day.

One of a new generation of police commanders with far better education and motivation than many of their predecessors, he knows eradication is a blunt instrument that will have no lasting effect without other policies as well.

"My request from the authorities is that poor farmers should be provided with alternatives, so their future can be guaranteed. Otherwise, when we eradicate their poppies, they are forced to join the Taliban, or commit crimes," he says.

As his tractors tear through the poppy fields, ripping up the thick green poppy plants, farmers plead with him to stop. One says: "Who do I complain to. Where do I go to rip my shirt" - a traditional sign of despair.

The farmers have borrowed to buy poppy seeds and fertiliser, and fear they will not be able to repay. They say they plant only a few poppies to feed their families. Nothing else pays as well. Failure to provide markets for alternative crops undermined much else that British troops did here.

This farmer says he is too angry to vote in Saturday's presidential election.

But, perhaps surprisingly, some of the farmers here say they will be voting in an election that is expected to have a high turnout across the country.

"We will take part in the elections. We are thinking about our future, so our Afghanistan can become stable. When Afghanistan is peaceful, we will not need to plant poppies; Afghanistan will have everything."

British army soldiers look on during a ceremony to disband the British military headquarters at Camp Bastion Helmand province on 1 April British soldiers held a ceremony to disband their HQ at Camp Bastion, in Helmand province, on 1 April
Officials cut a ribbon Digger ribbon cutting Amid rising security fears, hope for the future persists, as these officials open an infrastructure project
A digger next to an irrigation ditch Irrigation channels built in the 1960s are only now being cleared of blockages

Of the 448 British troops who died in Afghanistan, almost all died after the decision was made to secure Helmand in 2006. They have now withdrawn from the countryside, although a small force remains in Camp Bastion and one other outpost, ahead of the final pullout later this year.

After that, the only British military presence in Afghanistan will be at the new officer training academy near Kabul.

A memorial wall at the empty British forces headquarters at Lashkar Gah shows the marks where regimental plaques were removed. A couple of poppy wreaths lying forlornly against the wall are the only visible sign that the British were ever here.

But there are lasting legacies. There is now far better security in the most populated part of the province, the central belt of land along the Helmand River. Poppy growing has been pushed to the margins. Better roads have made it possible for the government to deliver services and offer an alternative to the Taliban.

In the western district of Nad Ali, the former British base, inside an old fort dating from earlier Afghan wars, is now a cricket pitch. Afghanistan is hugely proud of a national cricket team that emerged from nowhere to compete with the best.

Youths playing cricket in a former UK base The performance of the national cricket team has inspired many

The district governor in Nad Ali, Mohammed Ibrahim, is another of the new generation of educated technocrats who are remodelling Afghanistan. On the day I was there, he was cutting a ribbon to formally open a scheme to clear blocked drainage channels.

An old farmer, Haji Lal, came up to reminisce about "Scott", the US engineer he remembered who had been there in the 1960s to build the canal system. But the blockage of the drains has made much of the irrigation useless, as salt has built up in the land. Haji Lal said: "No-one has been to clear these canals for 30 years."

These farmers, who have seen the Russians come and go, and then the Taliban during the last 20 years, will be voting.

The successor to President Hamid Karzai will face high expectations.

The polls on Saturday are to elect a new national president, as well as provincial councils across Afghanistan's 34 provinces. If President Karzai hands over to an elected successor, it will be the first peaceful handover of power in Afghanistan for more than 100 years.

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