Saturday, February 6, 2010

Helmand offensive could involve Canadian 'mentors'

By Matthew Fisher, Canwest News Service, Ontario Gazette

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — An Afghan army brigade commander said Friday that one of his battalions, which has Canadian military mentors working with it, had recently moved from Kandahar to Helmand to be part of what NATO has been loudly billing as the biggest offensive ever against the Taliban.

Brig.-Gen. Abdul Basir Salehzai of 1st Brigade, 205 Corps, confirmed that a battalion, known as Kandak 1, was about to take part in Operation Moshtarak or Together, which is a joint operation involving thousands of British army and U.S. marine assault troops as well as several Afghan battalions.

While not confirming that Canadians from the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team had gone to Helmand for Op Moshtarak, Maj. Daryl Morrell of Task Force Kandahar said Friday that about 30 Canadians from the team were in the province as mentors with Kandak 1 "in support of ongoing operations . . . The Canadians and those they mentor had been moved from Zhari District to Helmand in early January."

Citing operational security reasons, "the duration of the operation cannot be released," Morrell said. "But once it is completed the Canadian troops will return to Zhari to continue their mission in Kandahar alongside other Canadian OMLT soldiers."

It was also revealed Friday that Canadian Chinook and Griffon helicopters have flown missions recently in the Helmand River Valley "to help shape" the battle space for the upcoming operation, which, rather unusually, has been much discussed by senior NATO commanders with journalists.

As part of those shaping operations, Canadian aircraft had inserted Danish and British forces into some locales, said Lt.-Col. Jeff Smyth, the commander of Canada's helicopters in southern Afghanistan.

Canada's helicopters in Afghanistan are a NATO Regional Command South, rather than a Canadian, asset. The helicopters usually support operations in Kandahar province but are sometimes tasked for missions in neighbouring provinces such as Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan.

Op Moshtarak, which has the Helmand city of Marja and the district of Nad Ali District as its focus, has been the subject of a growing media blitz by NATO officers and the Afghan government since it was first mooted several months ago.

Letting the Taliban know what is about to happen in their last major redoubt in the Helmand River Valley may seem a counter-intuitive way to conduct combat operations, as operational security usually takes precedence over everything else in a war zone. But announcing upcoming operations is a counter-insurgency strategy that was first used in Afghanistan by Canada's Brig-Gen. Jon Vance last year.

The former commander of Task Force Afghanistan went out of his way to tell any Afghan who would listen when his ground troops intended to launch an offensive. The hope was that the enemy would vanish before the assault. This is exactly what happened just prior to Canada's last three offensives in Kandahar.

Vance reasoned that since NATO's ambition was not to kill insurgents but to provide security for civilians by establishing a permanent presence in areas where the Taliban had been, advertising missions in advance made sense.

It has been exactly this strategy that U.S. marine and British army commanders have followed in Helmand for many weeks now, culminating in a blitz of information this week about OP Moshtarak.

The operation is meant to displace Taliban who are said to have gathered in their hundreds in the Helmand Valley.

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