There is only silence in Garmser, a ghost town on the edge of the desert in southern Afghanistan. The bazaar is a lonely line of abandoned shops and debris-strewn streets. There is just one trader — a baker — whose sole customers are British soldiers and Afghan police.
Further out, giant bomb craters dot the broken gardens and shredded fruit orchards of empty houses. Now they are inhabited by the British.
Squatting on a rickety rooftop, Corporal Lachlan MacNeil pointed to a cluster of long, low buildings.
“That’s the madrasa [Islamic school]. It’s a training camp for the Taliban,” he said, his face glistening from the morning heat. “Mostly foreigners inside, we hear — central Asians and Arabs, but especially Pakistanis.”
For many Taliban fighters, this deserted, dog-eared town is where the war starts. Garmser is the gateway to Afghanistan for insurgents who stream across the border from Pakistan, 193km to the south. The British base here is their first encounter with the “infidels.”
“They blood themselves against UK forces here, then graduate into the upper valleys,” said Major Neil Den-McKay, commanding officer of a Scottish infantry company stationed at Garmser’s agricultural college.
The fighters that pass before the British doorstep are as diverse as the Taliban has become. There are hard-bitten ideologues from the original Taliban movement of the 1990s, hired local fighters known as “$10 Taliban,” Baluch drug smugglers and al-Qaeda-linked Arabs.
But most, Afghan and British officials say, are Pakistani — ideologically driven young men who consider the war as a religious obligation of struggle, or jihad.
“Our understanding is that the madrasas of northern Pakistan are a major breeding ground that provide the bulk of brainwashed Taliban fighters,” said Lieutenant Colonel Nick Borton, commanding officer of Battlegroup South.
Up to 60 percent of the fighters in Garmser are Pakistani, the Afghan intelligence chief in Garmser, Mir Hamza, said. They come from militant hotspots such as Waziristan and Swat, but also from Punjab, a rich agricultural province with a history of producing radical Islamists.
“Sometimes the Pakistanis have trouble communicating with local [Pashto-speaking] fighters, because they only speak Urdu or Punjabi,” he said.
The insurgents cross from Baluchistan, a sprawling province in western Pakistan whose capital, Quetta, is considered to be the Taliban headquarters by NATO commanders. They muster in remote refugee camps west of Quetta — Girdi Jungle is most frequently mentioned — before slipping across the border in four-wheel drive convoys that split up to avoid detection, Den-McKay said. Sometimes sympathetic border guards help them on their way, he said.
Inside Afghanistan the fighters thunder across the Dasht-i-Margo — a harsh expanse of ancient smuggling trails which means “desert of death” — before reaching the river Helmand. Here, the sand turns to lush fields of poppy and wheat, and they reach Garmser, home to the most southerly British base in Helmand.
A wall-sized map in the British base shows the balance of forces. The British control the town center; the Taliban a sprawl of mud- walled farmhouses that spills south and east. With its irrigation canals, World War I-style trenches and thick vegetation, the area makes for fine guerrilla ground.