Nato forces advance into key Taliban stronghold
'Objectives gained', say British, as US units push into vital town
THE first stage of the biggest military offensive ever launched by Nato troops in Afghanistan was declared a success last night 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 2,000 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.
The battle for the Taliban heartlands in central Helmand is the first significant test of the strategy proposed by General 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 would 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.
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, UK 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.
As the helicopters landed in clouds of dust, soldiers stormed into the night, heading for their rallying positions before moving off to seize their objectives.
Almost immediately the helicopters were again airborne, jinking their way through the black sky in to avoid anti-aircraft fire which intelligence had suggested would be the most dangerous threat.
The most critical phase of the early "break-in" battle was under way and commanders had warned that if a Chinook "went down" the mission would not be aborted. As the British force began to secure their area, a 1,000-strong combined force of members of the United States Marine Corps and the Afghan National Army landed in Marjah, an area where it was believed the Taliban would stand and fight and casualties could be taken.
Over the following 90 minutes, more marines arrived in waves of CH-53 Super Stallion transport helicopters. By daybreak, hundreds more soldiers began to enter the area by land, using mobile bridges to cross streams and irrigation ditches. Heavily armoured mine-sweeping trucks and special tanks carved a path through a belt of makeshift bombs buried around the town. "We're going to take Marjah away from the Taliban," said Brigadier General Lawrence D Nicholson, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. This could result in "a fundamental change in Helmand and, by extension, the entire nation of Afghanistan" he had said before the battle.
As the Nato and Afghan troops gingerly picked their way through the treacherous terrain, Apache helicopter gunships provided top cover, ready to strike if any resistance was encountered.
Other objectives throughout central Helmand were being seized by US Marines, who faced little or no Taliban resistance. To the north of the Americans, hundreds of British troops from the Grenadier and Coldstream Guards battle groups pushed forward in columns of Mastiff armoured vehicles into the formerly Taliban-controlled area of Babaji known as 'The Pear'.
Resistance was minimal. Only the distant chatter of machine-guns or the rumble of an explosion reminded them of an enemy presence. By 4.15am, the units had linked up and secured another objective.
The offensive took more than two months to plan and for the past six weeks British, US and Afghan troops have been conducting "shaping operations", enabling them to strike with speed in main assault.
The aim of Operation Moshtarak is not to kill Taliban but to protect and secure the local population. Nato commanders are hoping the success of the mission will offer some Taliban fighters the chance to give up their guns and reintegrate into the local community.
Major General Carter, the commander of Nato troops in southern Afghanistan, said the operation "went without a single hitch". He added: "We've caught the insurgents on the hoof, and they're completely dislocated." He said 11 objectives had been seized immediately in a "very complicated" operation to perform at night.
Gen Carter said success was not being measured by Taliban deaths. "There have been some casualties in terms of the insurgency and there have been a number of people detained. I think, encouragingly, there is the odd sign of people potentially wanting to reconcile or wanting to reintegrate into the local community, and of course that's important because this is about protecting a population and it's about an argument.
"What we want to do is persuade the people on the ground they are better off being with the Afghan government than they are being with the forces of the insurgency."