Friday, February 5, 2010

British troops launch major Taliban assault in insurgents' heartland

Pic: Maj Paul Smyth

By Ian Drury, Daily Mail

British troops have launched a major assault to sweep the Taliban from one of their strongholds in Afghanistan - swooping into the insurgents' heartland in heavily-armoured helicopters and trucks today.

The show of strength aimed to put enemy fighters on the back foot and allow UK forces to get a foothold in a no-go area of central Helmand Province.

Military commanders took part in the assault to lay the groundwork for the biggest push against Taliban fighters since last summer's Operation Panther's Claw, a month-long operation in the Babaji district during which 10 British soldiers were killed

The latest air and ground offensive, featuring the Grenadier Guards, the Royal Welsh Guards and Scots Guards, took place to the south of Nad'e Ali.

Troops displayed their firepower in a last-ditch bid to frighten insurgents into laying down their weapons ahead of the imminent Operation Moshtarak - the Pashtun word for 'Together'.

They have also held talks with Afghan village leaders to gain support for the new mission, in a bid to reassure local people they intend to bring security to the district by clearing out 'irritant' insurgents.

The UK mission came as it was revealed U.S. and Afghan forces had killed 32 suspected militants after raiding Taliban compounds in the village of Khushan in Nad'e Ali district.

The aim is to clear the ground ahead of the massive push to capture the town of Marjah, at the heart of the opium-growing area that forms the last big insurgents' enclave in southern part of Helmand.

This will be a multi-national ISAF operation, led by U.S. Marines and featuring hundreds of British troops, and support by Afghan forces.

Unusually, the plans for the assault have been widely publicised in a bid to convince civilians and Taliban fighters not committed to the insurgency to leave the town, which has not been under Afghan government control for years.

Major General Gordon Messenger, the strategic communications office for Afghanistan, said: 'We want to do it in the least aggressive way possible. But we can't discount a fight and we can't discount casualties.'

It will be the first major offensive since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the deployment of an extra 30,000 troops in a 'surge' to end the insurgency. The UK has about 10,200 personnel in Helmand.

Coalition forces are implementing a new strategy of protecting population centres from insurgents.

Speaking from Kabul ahead of the announcement, Lieutenant General Nick Parker, the deputy commander in Afghanistan, said Operation Moshtarak aimed to increase security in the war-torn country.

He said that after insurgents in the south had been subdued, British forces would step up training the Afghan National Security Forces, while helping bolster security, governance, education, healthcare and development in the troubled province.

Of the offensive, Lt Gen Parker said: 'This is going to be a difficult task.

'But this is a very important year and there is a real sense of expectation that we have got the conditions in place, we've got a good plan and we've got a good approach, but we are absolutely clear we are going to achieve what we set out to achieve.'

Earlier U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, offered an upbeat assessment of the situation in Afghanistan. He said it remained 'serious, but not deteriorating'.

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