LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan (Reuters) - British forces moving into southern Afghanistan this year found a fiercer Taliban foe than they expected, but remain confident of victory, a senior British commander said on Tuesday.
British war planners had expected insurgents to dissipate over the winter as they have in years past, and were surprised instead by a new campaign of suicide bombings, the commander told reporters.
"The most serious difference has been the extent to which the Taliban have had successes this year and are probably in some greater numbers than we suspected," he said.
"We certainly thought in the winter they would have conformed more to their normal pattern of going to ground. What we saw in the winter was the beginning of a suicide campaign, which was a bit of a novelty in these parts."
But he added: "They haven't come out hugely more than last year, and they haven't come out ten feet tall either."
"We can definitely overmatch the Taliban and can do it in an appropriate and careful way."
He was speaking to a small group of reporters during a visit to a British base in the capital of Helmand province, under condition of anonymity because he was not authorised by London to speak on the record.
British forces have arrived this year along with mostly Canadian and Dutch troops to extend a NATO peacekeeping mission into Afghanistan's volatile south for the first time.
Along with U.S. and Canadian forces, the British are making a push, dubbed Operation Mountain Thrust, into the wild mountain valleys that spill into southern Afghanistan's deserts.
U.S. commanders have described the assault as one of their biggest in years. NATO is expected to take command formally in the area next month.
But news this month of the first serious clashes, including Britain's first combat death, has raised concerns at home that the mission could be more risky than the government described when it announced it.
Some Canadians have expressed similar worries about their own mission in nearby Kandahar province, and public opinion in other NATO countries is wary.
Britain says its goal is to secure towns that are outside the government's control and allow development aid to win support for the government in Kabul.
"Achieving secure localities and then not capitalising on that in development terms is not very clever," the British commander said.
Britain is responsible for Helmand province, a vast area of desert wasteland and fertile river valleys climbing into the barren Hindu Kush mountains.
The province is a heartland of ethnic Pashtun sympathy for the Taliban and also produces a quarter of Afghanistan's opium, which in turn supplies up to 90 percent of the world's heroin.
But the province has a new governor, and the commander said Britain's goal is to extend his writ across it.
Battles like the first serious clash, in which British paratroops killed up to 21 suspected insurgents in a six-hour shootout after a series of coordinated Taliban ambushes on June 4, were making the point.
"It's just a question of how quickly the message spreads."