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01-06-07, 06:23 PM #1
UK troops switch tactics in Afghan Desert of Death
UK troops switch tactics in Afghan Desert of Death
KABUL: No bird chirps, no cock crows as the British Royal Marines clamber out of the holes they have dug to sleep in. Soon, with a few tiny stoves, they are boiling up tea as the sun rises over a ridge where the Taliban still have their grip on towns and villages along the Helmand River.
More than half a year since British forces first entered Afghanistan's wildest province, the troops are modifying their tactics, placing less emphasis on holding the centres of district towns and more on mobility. Units now operate out of small armoured vehicles, bedding down in the desert under the stars.
The units are called MOGs, manoeuvre outreach groups, and the marines and soldiers say they are MOGging -- living for weeks on end in the desolate moonscape that Baluchi tribes named the Desert of Death.
"What these mobile assets bring to the operation is the ability to appear in one place and then disappear into the desert and appear again somewhere else," says Major Ben Warwick, commander of C Squadron, the Light Dragoons, whose light armoured reconnaissance vehicles were brought to Afghanistan in October.
The desert is little more than pebbles and chalky white dust with the occasional tiny patch of scrub. But over the ridge to the east, the Helmand River is surrounded by ancient irrigation canals, providing a crescent so fertile that the province produces a third of the world's opium poppy crop.
British troops, part of a NATO force fighting to drive Taliban guerrillas out of the south, entered Helmand province this year with crack paratroops who travelled by helicopter but had little means of moving safely on the ground.
They were quickly dispatched to defend forward bases in the mountains to the north, called platoon houses, where they became a prime target for the Taliban.
Throughout June, July and August they fought battles their commander described as the most intense faced by British troops since the Korean War 50 years ago.
The Taliban attacks have since tapered off, and the Royal Marines and soldiers who replaced the paratroops have now moved into the south of the province as well.
Crucially, the Marines are now equipped with new "Viking" armoured vehicles -- small steel boxes on treads.
"Basically, it's a protected battlefield taxi with a machine gun on top," says Major Andy Plewes, commander of Zulu Company, 45 Commando, Royal Marines.
His men arrived to begin MOGging just last week, and have already made their presence felt, driving up and doing foot patrols in villages along the crescent.
Instead of basing their forces inside the main district centre, the aim is to keep them mobile, out in the desert, with food dropped by helicopter, patrolling inside villages, and easily swooping off into the desert from which they came.
"We know that there is a lot of Taliban activity in the fertile strip on either side of the Helmand river," Plewes says. "Because we're here without being in a fixed location, they (the Taliban) don't have the freedom of movement they had at the platoon houses."
A small team of British troops is embedded with an Afghan army unit, maintaining an outpost inside the district centre, Garm Seer.
Fighting there has been intense. Hours before a Reuters reporting team arrived at nightfall by the desert camp, British Harrier jets and Apache attack helicopters had fired into the town in support of Afghan troops there.
Several times during the night the marines fired with mobile artillery, lighting the sky over the town with illumination rounds.
The troops know the stakes are high.
"This regiment has been here before," says Sergeant Glenn Littlewood of the Light Dragoons, a 15-year veteran. "1880. The Second Afghan War. Entire brigade was wiped out. 2,300 British troops. Not far from here, actually."
"Let's hope we have a better time of it now."
01-07-07, 09:24 AM #2
Sunday January 7, 01:39 PM
Royal Marines have destroyed a Taliban training camp in Afghanistan, killing dozens of gunmen. About 110 Marines swept through northern Helmand, targeting insurgent boltholes to pave the way for much-needed repairs on a hydroelectric dam. Defence officials said the operation would help bring electricity to nearly two million people.
Operation Clay, which began on New Year's Day, saw men from Plymouth-based 42 Commando engaged in four days of ferocious firefights.
The raids resulted in the deaths of a senior Taliban commander and "tens" of his henchmen.
Only one Marine was injured during the fighting, being shot through the hand.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is heading the project to fix the Kajaki Dam, sent a personal message of thanks to the Marines.
Marauding Taliban fighters had been stalling repairs on faulty turbines at the dam, but the work can now begin next month.
Once it is fixed, the facility, which was built in 1953, will bring electricity to 1.8 million people and treble the area of irrigated farmland in the fertile province.
British military spokesman Major Oliver Lee said the Marines had come up against coherent sustained attacks of small arms, rocket and indirect fire.
01-07-07, 08:47 PM #3
The rocket exploded 30ft away and its fin smacked my helmet … it was brilliant'
The rocket exploded 30ft away and its fin smacked my helmet … it was brilliant'
JASON CUMMING IN LASHKARGAH, AFGHANISTAN
Operation Clay aims to secure key hydro-eloectric dam
Offensive is one of biggest since taking control of Helmand in April
Afghan opium production thriving due to record poppy harvest
"Operation Clay was designed to dominate the immediate environs of Kajaki dam so that the security is in place to allow development to go on there. They were up against fairly coherent, sustained attacks of small arms and rockets. We fought extremely effectively and we won." - MAJOR OLIVER LEE
Story in full BRITISH troops have killed dozens of insurgents in a major operation targeting a Taleban training camp and securing a key dam in southern Afghanistan. About 110 Royal Marine commandos swept through northern Helmand province, engaged in fierce firefights with militants, during a four-day battle.
The victims include a Taleban commander, with senior UK officers describing his death as "very significant".
Launched in sub-zero conditions on New Year's Day, Operation Clay was aimed at securing the area around a key hydro-electric dam in the volatile Helmand province.
The offensive's success is eventually expected to guarantee a reliable power supply for 1.8 million people who currently have no access to electricity. It could also potentially treble the amount of irrigated land in a region already known as "Afghanistan's bread basket".
As members of 42 Commando seized a strategically crucial hill and swept through a series of compounds at the village of Kajaki Olya, prompting lengthy gunbattles, comrades with the Royal Engineers built a permanent checkpoint for vehicles and adjacent accommodation block in a single day.
Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, later sent his personal congratulations to Brigadier Jerry Thomas, the head of the UK taskforce in Helmand.
One marine suffered minor injuries to a hand during the battle, while another narrowly missed being seriously hurt by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Footage taken by a Royal Marine combat camera team seen by The Scotsman shows the stunned serviceman saying: "I got hit in the head with the fin of an RPG. It landed 30 feet in front of me and the fin smacked me in the helmet. It was hoofing [brilliant]."
Two Apache helicopter gunships were called in to attack members of the hardline Islamic militia entrenched on the ground. Marines also used missile systems and mortars.
Major Oliver Lee, the 3 Commando Brigade operations officer, last night said "tens" of insurgents were killed during the battle. Local reports suggested that the battle left about 100 Taleban fighters dead, but military officials described that figure as an exaggeration and said that no civilians were hurt during the "surge" offensive. It is thought that most local residents had previously fled the area due to earlier clashes.
British forces also stormed a site that is believed to have been used as a Taleban training base.
Major Lee added: "Operation Clay was designed to dominate the immediate environs of Kajaki dam so that the security is in place to allow development to go on there.
"They were up against fairly coherent, sustained attacks of small arms and rockets. We fought extremely effectively and we won."
The clashes included firefights with Taleban fighters located as little as 200m away.
Beyond the biting cold of the Afghan winter, troops faced the rigours of battle in rocky terrain and came under attack while traversing a river. Much of the fighting occurred in a series of traditional mud-brick compounds and homes.
At one point in the heat of battle, marines entered a compound to encounter a middle-aged Afghan man running towards them. Despite initial fears that he was a suicide bomber, the troops showed restraint and he later told them his son had been killed by the Taleban.
British forces also seized a key hill known as Sparrow Hawk - allowing them to build an observation post on the site.
Officials last night confirmed 42 Commando remained in control of the zone around Kajaki. It is hoped members of the fledgling Afghan National Army will soon be ready to take over.
A specialist British reconnaissance team and several members of the Afghan National Police were also involved in the operation, which was led by Major Martin Collin.
The offensive is one of biggest since about 3,500 British troops took control of security in Helmand province in April.
Major Lee said the Taleban commander killed during the had "considerable influence" in the area, but military officials refused to release his identity. However, he said the operation "certainly stands out in terms of outcome" because it would enable work to begin on the dam by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) within weeks.
Major Lee added: "We're trying to take Helmand province forward. There's still work to be done but a huge amount of progress has been made."
Built by the Americans about 30 years ago at the source of the Helmand River, only one of the three turbines on the Kajaki dam is currently operational. USAID has earmarked $135 million to overhaul the facility.
Lieutenant-Colonel Rory Bruce, a British spokesman, described the three-year programme of repairs to the ageing dam as "one of the most essential projects for the future of Afghanistan". He added: "We have dominating positions, but we'll continue being vigilant."
However, the British base at Lashkar Gah, which is home to about 700 troops, remains on high alert due to intelligence suggesting two foreign-born suicide bombers have arrived in the nearby town.
ONLY months after graduating at the top of his class, the return of Humayun Aziz, 19, to Laysee Zacor middle and high school was unusual, to say the least.
Amid the vast reconstruction of Afghanistan's war-shattered Helmand province, his next visit came after setting up a business that won a £41,027 tender to build eight new classrooms at his alma mater.
The funding is part of more than £1.5 million spent since August by the Department for International Development on a variety of projects, from children's playparks and libraries to police stations. An additional £800,000 spend has been approved in principle, as part of a campaign to win over locals.
In Lashkar Gah, an accommodation block for trainee midwives is being built at a hospital and £110,000 has been approved for repairs to the Bolan Bridge - the only major crossing of the River Helmand for about 35 miles.
Royal Engineers have built 12 police stations in the city. Officials believe that such works will have a major impact on convincing local Afghans of the "tangible benefits" brought by foreign troops and will diminish support for the Taleban.
RECORD OPIUM FEARS
A RECORD-BREAKING Afghan poppy crop is expected this spring, despite the presence of UK forces in the region that produces 40 per cent of the world's opium.
Last year, opium production rose 162 per cent in Helmand province - the area where UK troops have been responsible for security since September. About 90 per cent of heroin sold in the UK originates in Afghanistan.
An Afghanistan-based expert said the situation "appeared to be at least as bad this year". The source said: "In the central district [of Helmand], there appears to be more poppy planted this year than last and good early rains have helped crops in the northern district."
Counter-narcotics is one of four objectives of the British presence in Afghanistan - alongside security, reconstruction and rebuilding the economy. Although UK troops have no formal role in the Afghan government's drive to eradicate poppies, they are tasked with creating security conditions in Helmand that should make it difficult for growers and traffickers to thrive.
01-08-07, 09:35 PM #4
having just returned from helmund it is great to see that the lads are starting to in roads to finishing the afghan resistiance. all we need to do now is convince the locals to give up the forgien fighters from pakistan then we will be winning the hearts and minds and not just the war.
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