Sunday, July 19, 2009
Operation Panther's Claw, the battle to drive the Taliban from a key corner of Helmand, has been under way for a month - but British troops need more time to finish the job.
By Thomas Harding of the Telegraph in Helmand
19 Jul 2009
It was at first light of dawn on July 3 that the tanks began to roll in the most dangerous phase of Operation Panther's Claw - the offensive in Helmand province that is being seen as the biggest British engagement since the invasion of Iraq.
More than two weeks later, the same units were still engaged with an increasingly desperate enemy - several hundred Taliban fighters being pushed steadily westwards towards what military planners hope will be their nemesis.
Only sporadic details of the protracted military operation have been revealed by the Ministry of Defence so far. But now The Sunday Telegraph has assembled the first full account of the unfolding battle which has already left an estimated 200 enemy fighters dead, and claimed the lives of nine British soldiers.
The plan from the outset was to seal off an triangular area of Helmand about the size of the Isle of Wight, a stronghold of bomb-makers and heroin factories, and drive its resident Taliban fighters westward along the Helmand River.
There, caught between the river and a parallel canal, and faced on both sides by Nato and Afghan forces, they could be finally eliminated.
At Checkpoint 8 on the Nahr-e-Burgha canal, as the heat of the day began to grow, Danish Leopard 2 tanks moved parallel with a stretch of water. Their 120mm guns peered into the lush trees and bushes of the "Green Zone", watered generously by criss-crossing irrigation ditches that later that day would provide life-saving cover from Taliban fire.
The loud report of tank guns announced to the 300 or so Taliban who had been living here unmolested for two years that the battle had now begun in earnest.
The insurgents had already claimed an early victim by killing the commanding officer of the Welsh Guards, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, and Tpr Joshua Hammond, before the force of 1,200 Nato troops and 500 Afghans had even entered the area known as the "Claw".
Those men had died during the earlier drive, beginning on June 19, to secure 13 crossing points across the Shamalan canal at the six-mile-wide western end of the triangle.
A single platoon of 30 Welsh Guards had suffered 19 casualties as the Taliban desperately fought to stop a cordon being drawn around them.
With the sides of the claw-shaped triangle sealed, the British task force was to start smashing its way through from the east, conquering each of three sectors in turn.
The northern boundary was Nahr-e-Burgha canal, the southern edge the waters of the Helmand river.
The Light Dragoons battle group, led by Lt Col Gus Fair, was chosen as the spearhead force. The Dragoons, on their second tour of Helmand in two years, are equipped with the 12-ton tracked Viking armoured vehicle which - although vulnerable to bombs - are light enough to manoeuvre in the Green Zone of orchards and lush fields, and provide a fire-support with their heavy machine guns.
They also have Scimitar light tanks, with excellent thermal-imaging systems, and the heavier, well-protected Mastiff, which has limited off-road ability.
Accompanying them are more than 200 men from two companies of 2nd Bn The Mercian Regiment, also veterans of 2007, and two companies of Afghan National Army. Later, a company of 2 Rifles was also drafted in for the push.
A few miles to the west, the men of the Black Watch were to make two separate air assaults, landing in the middle of enemy territory to confuse the Taliban and make them cover their backs. In each such assault - one of which is under way this weekend - the "Jocks" were to remain on the ground for at least 48 hours, constantly harassing the insurgents.
As the main force advanced westwards, it seemed to some of them more like the Somme - with troops moving carefully across open fields, crossing streams and moving through orchards before the air was cut by gunfire and rockets. The heat has been such that the battle group of around 500 men has needed 3,000 litres of water a day.
Progress was sometime agonisingly slow. One the first day, troops advanced just a few hundred metres and objectives that were meant to have been overwhelmed in an hour took more than a day to seize. "We were essentially manoeuvring in a giant minefield," said one of the Light Dragoon soldiers.
For the first three days, the gun battles were constant, and progress meagre. The Taliban knew the British were coming and set up a multitude of booby traps.
Laboriously, and with the constant threat of instant death, soldiers equipped with mine detectors carried out sweeps of roads, walls, ditches and trees for the lethal IEDs (improvised explosive devices). By the end of day four, the Light Dragoon battle group had picked its way through Spin Masjed district - but progress was still slow, with many casualties. Three soldiers had been killed during the fighting, including one while clearing a helicopter landing site to retrieve a casualty.
A single company of 100 men was reported to have suffered 47 wounded, although several had heat exhaustion or minor injuries.
With snatches of sleep taken in 20-minute lulls between fights the troops continued the slog. The advance took longer because of the new instruction by American Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall commander in Afghanistan, to minimise aerial bombing to avoid civilian casualties .
Some insurgents desperately swam the Helmand river to escape, but many more were detained. Three more soldiers died during 24 hours over July 9 and 10 - the worst day in recent memory for the British army, as elsewhere in Helmand, five riflemen of the 2nd Bn The Rifles were also killed in a complex ambush of roadside bombs.
In one attack an officer lost an arm, both legs and his genitals, but survived through the excellent medical care.
After a week of arduous combat in a landscape described as "tight country", commanders ordered a "tactical pause" in the second district of Malgir, for the exhausted troops to recuperate and to be re-supplied.
The cordon around the "claw" meant the Taliban trapped inside were prevented from any resupply or reinforcements.
Officers beleive that the command structure of the insurgents is becoming less effective by the day, with the enemy left to fight in small pockets. They have suffered high casualties: an estimated 200 dead, two thirds of their force.
The final phase of Panther's Claw opened on Thursday with the latest Black Watch air assault operation, dropping into enemy held territory in the district of Babaji.
On the ground, infantry of the Light Dragoons battle group are fighting their way towards the Taliban, forcing them back on to the line of Welsh Guards to the west.
The next phase could take weeks rather than days, but commanders are hopeful that the Taliban's back is broken.
Locals, who have started showing soldiers where bombs have been planted and safe lanes through minefields, are reported to have begun returning to their homes in the districts taken by the British.
"It will go on for a while, it could take days or even weeks, but we believe the back of the enemy has been broken," said Lt Col Simon Banton, commanding officer of 2 Mercian.
The price of the operation has been high in British dead. But military officials are hoping that, aided by the influx of 10,000 Americans, it will herald the start of the Taliban's final demise in Helmand.