Sunday, February 14, 2010

Afghanistan: first stage of operation Moshtarak declared a success

The Telegraph

General Mohaiuddin Ghori and Brigadier James Cowan commanding operations in the Nad e Ali District

The first stage of the biggest military offensive ever launched by Nato troops in Afghanistan has been declared a success as thousands of US and British troops seized a string of Taliban strongholds across central Helmand.

In a series of complex airborne assaults, more than two thousand British and US troops began flooding into Taliban-controlled territory under Operation Moshtarak.

The long-awaited push, involving about 15,000 Nato and Afghan troops, was not without cost. A Grenadier Guard was killed when his Jackal patrol vehicle struck an improvised explosive device in the Nad-e-Ali area of Helmand. A US Marine died in a separate attack. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, said: “I want to pass on my condolences to the family and friends of one of our soldiers, very brave, very courageous, lost in this assault, making the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”

The battle for the Taliban heartlands in central Helmand is the first significant test of the strategy proposed by Gen Stanley McChrystal, the American commanding the Afghanistan operation, for achieving success.

The mission is designed to “break the back” of the Taliban in Helmand and commanders warned that casualties could be the highest of any operation in the eight-year war. On the eve of the operation, Lt Col Matt Bazeley, the commanding officer of 28 Engineer Regiment, whose men would be some of the first to land and be charged with clearing routes through minefields, told his soldiers: “We are going into the heart of darkness.

“It is bloody dangerous out there. This is what you have been trained for. If things go wrong, no sad moments, no pauses, we regather, re-cock, and go again.

“I repeat: much of this operation rests on us.”

Before the battle started on the ground, RAF Tornados, flying high above the central Helmand Valley, began gathering intelligence by scanning the terrain below with targeting pods, searching for signs of insurgent activity.

The information was instantly relayed to mission headquarters in a secure bunker at Kandahar airbase, where analysts monitoring banks of computers began to sift through the intelligence and relay vital information back to troops on the front line.

US and British spy planes added to the developing intelligence picture, hoping to pick up or disrupt communication between Taliban commanders.

The first kills were made by unmanned Predator aircraft and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, which targeted men seen laying roadside bombs and setting up anti-aircraft guns. Eleven were killed in the strikes. The early assaults took place shortly after

2am local time yesterday (9.30pm on Friday, British time) when troops from the US Marine Corps seized a series of canal crossings south of Nad-e-Ali, a main population centre of central Helmand.

Within half an hour US, British and Afghan special forces seized and secured dozens of helicopter landing sites. As the first Chinooks approached at 2.25am, the night sky was “illuminated” with “black light” from infra-red flares — invisible to the naked eye but vital to pilots with night vision equipment — dropped from US Marine Harrier AV-8B jets flying high above.

At about 4am, the most complex phase of the operation began when RAF Chinooks crammed with soldiers from the 1st battalion the Royal Welsh left Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, for the Pegasus landing zone in the Taliban stronghold of Showal in the Chah-e-Anjir area.

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