Battle Against Taliban
Four thousand British troops are preparing to take part in the largest military offensive against the Taliban since the Afghanistan invasion in 2001.
The strike force, composed of British, US and Afghan troops, will storm into some of the most dangerous areas of central Helmand in a series of daring raids — the biggest since the first Gulf war — as part of Operation Moshtarak.
The offensive, the start date of which is being kept secret, will dwarf last summer’s Operation Panther’s Claw in which 10 British soldiers were killed and more than 100 injured.
The mission is designed to “break the back” of the Taliban in Helmand but commanders warned that casualties could be the highest of any operation in the eight-year war. Senior officers believe that there is a “real risk” that British forces could lose a Chinook helicopter laden with troops in the assault and warned the public to “steel itself” for casualties.
Gen Sir David Richards, the Chief of the General Staff, said casualties were inevitable. “One has to be prepared physically to drive the insurgents out,” he said.
The battle for the Taliban heartlands in central Helmand will be the first significant test of the strategy proposed by Gen Stanley McChrystal, the American commanding the Afghanistan operation, for achieving success.
Nato troops, supported by special forces, combat jets, Apache attack helicopters, tanks and drones will simultaneously attack several Taliban enclaves within the notorious “Green Zone”, aiming to kill or capture an estimated 1,000 heavily-armed insurgents.
Once cleared of enemy fighters, Afghan security forces will attempt to bring security and stability to civilians who have spent the past few years living under Taliban rule.
Allied commanders had hoped that the Taliban would have abandoned areas where the fighting was likely to be most intense but intelligence reports suggest that they have laid hundreds of improvised explosive devices and are preparing to stand and fight.
Sources also warned that British troops deploying to the battlefield by helicopter faced a high “ground to air threat”, with the Taliban attempting to shoot down helicopters.
“Our real concern is that we could lose one or more Chinooks filled with soldiers — that would come close to being catastrophic,” said a senior officer. “The British public needs to steel itself for these casualties. We need the people in the UK to show a great deal of resilience. This is about delivering what could amount to a decisive blow to the Taliban in Helmand.”
Commanders of the Afghan military have been involved at every level of planning. Moshtarak means “together” in Dari, which is spoken in Afghanistan.
The most ferocious fighting is expected to be in the locations that were partially cleared of the Taliban in last summer’s offensive.
Gen Richards warned that casualties were inevitable and told The Sunday Telegraph: “A population-centric strategy, such as General McCrystal is now correctly employing, requires us to secure the people from insurgent influence and attack.
“This cannot be achieved by simply putting up barriers. One has to be prepared physically to drive the insurgents out of their bomb factories and safe havens, in the process inflicting a psychological blow to them that will concurrently reassure the population. There are inevitably risks but, well conducted as this will be, the gains are considerable. Offensive operations like Moshtarak are a key part of any counter-insurgency campaign.”
In phase one of the mission about 5,000 British and US troops secured areas around Kandahar. Further “shaping” operations have already been conducted by the Grenadier Guards battlegroup and troops from the Coldstream Guards and the Royal Welsh.
Until the arrival of 21,000 US troops, British forces did not have enough soldiers to hold the ground they won from the Taliban. In Operation Panther’s Claw last summer, vast areas of the Green Zone – the heavily populated plain that neighbours Helmand river — were cleared of insurgents. But once the British and Nato troops withdrew to their bases, the Taliban returned.
Villagers in the path of the fighting viewed the impending assault with apprehension.
Gul Mohammad, 32, a farmer, said: “We are always caught between the Taliban and the government. Perhaps if the Americans push out the Taliban there will be peace at last.”