Panther's Claw: victory is declared – but at a price

Six-week battle for a chunk of Helmand the size of the Isle of Wight saw the most intense fighting of UK's Afghan mission
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The Independent Online

A thousand roadside bombs discovered in three months; others taking a lethal toll of British lives almost every day; coffins coming home each week; furore at home, with the head of the Army warring with ministers about lack of equipment and boots on the ground. This is the grim and incendiary backdrop in which Operation Panchai Salang, Panther's Claw, unfolded in Helmand over the past six weeks.

Yesterday one of the biggest missions since British forces went into Afghanistan, and certainly the most high profile, was declared a victory by the Prime Minister. The number of UK military fatalities in the offensive was 11, although altogether 20 had died in other violent attacks in Helmand in the past month. There are no official figures for the Taliban dead, but unofficially the figure is put at around 230. Civilian fatalities,"collateral damage", the commanders insist, was just three.

The area captured was a swath of the Helmand river valley the size of the Isle of Wight, with a population of around 80,000 – about the same as a small town in the Home Counties.

The achievement should not, however, be underestimated. The valley is the most densely inhabited patch of the province and of significant commercial, strategic and symbolic value.

It is a sign of the huge task faced by Nato that eight years after the fall of the Taliban, the area has been controlled by insurgents, and acted as the base for planning attacks and blooding young jihadists arriving from Pakistan. It had also become the biggest area for cultivating the heroin poppies which help to bankroll the Islamists and corrupt warlords.

With the elections next month, Afghanistan becoming viewed as Barack Obama's war, and 12,000 US troops pouring into Helmand, it was deemed vital that the river valley be brought under control. The US Marines launched their much-touted "surge" last month. The British end of the offensive was meant to hit the Taliban and help drive them out of the villages.

The operation began on 19 June when 350 soldiers from the Black Watch, with Afghan troops, launched an air assault on a drugs bazaar and took over a bridge in the Nahr e-Burgha canal. The Welsh Guards battlegroup occupied 14 other crossings. Leopard 2 tanks of the Danish battalion drew up along the water's edge, their 120mm guns pointing towards Taliban positions. For the next six hours the insurgents fought ferociously. A platoon of 30 Welsh Guards had 19 injured as they attempted to close the gap, with shells from the Danish tanks flying over their heads. The next thrust came on 3 July when the Light Dragoons battlegroup and Afghan forces took the village of Spin Masjid after five days of hard fighting. For many it seemed as if they were having to negotiate a giant minefield. When they eventually broke through, 53 buried IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were found concealed, ready to be activated.

Three soldiers died in the fighting, one of them attempting to clear a site for helicopters to ferry away the wounded. A company of 100 reported 40 injuries, ranging from shrapnel and gunshot wounds to heat exhaustion caused by continuous skirmishing in 45C temperatures in body armour.

Eight soldiers were killed in one 24-hour period, the worst in the conflict so far. Five of them, members of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifles, died in blasts at Sangin, the single most deadly attack faced by British troops in Afghanistan.

Lt-Col Gus Fair, of the Light Dragoons, recalled: "This was the most intense fighting over a protracted period I have experienced in my 20 years in the Army... Progress such as this does not come free and we have paid a heavy price. The cost to the enemy should not go unreported, we have comprehensively defeated the Taliban."

The final phases of the operation began on 20 July when the Black Watch and 2nd Battalion, the Welsh Guards, cleared remaining areas around Babaji. Once again they found numerous IEDs buried in the ground, once again a soldier died.

The Afghan war pitched British troops into fierce fighting. There have been numerous examples of selflessness and bravery. For example, Cpl Daniel Farrell, of The Rifles, carried Rifleman Nathan Hau to safety through withering fire. There was the unnamed officer of the Light Dragoons who had lost an arm and both legs as he refused to abandon the most vulnerable position as he shepherded his troops to safety. And there were explosives specialists who disarm roadside bombs and mines. One of them was killed carrying out this task.

Brig Tim Radford, who commanded Panther's Claw, spoke of "the incredible courage and fortitude under fire" of his soldiers. Two more died yesterday. The one grim certainty in this brutality is that the losses will continue.

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