Ambushes, firefights and IEDs hamper latest British offensive

Kim Sengupta reports from Operation Tor Shezada's front line

"We are moving to the compound of Rahmad Yar," was the intercepted Taliban message.

The attack came 53 minutes later, long raking bursts of machine-gun fire along with intermittent Kalashnikov shots. Other targets around the area also began to be hit. The Taliban were not giving up their stronghold without a fight.

Resistance had initially been muted as British and Afghan forces headed south, with insurgent fighters focusing on US Marines coming in the opposite direction. But they had reorganised – with repeated radio calls for ammunition – and were now in a position to hit back.

A series of attempted ambushes continued for the rest of the afternoon as the troops patrolled along tracks, twisting past high-walled compounds; Taliban fighters moved across fields and Apache and Cobra helicopter gunships circled overhead.

Despite the British and Afghan troops enjoying an element of surprise, the insurgents have been able to lay down belts of IEDs, their weapon of choice which have taken a lethal toll in the campaign. These had to be dealt with repeatedly. At least two of the bombs, discovered and detonated, were around 30lbs, capable of causing devastating damage. There was one predictable element to most of the attacks: the insurgents' penchant of broadcasting their intentions. As a patrol made its way through irrigation canals and farmland, an Afghan soldier monitoring Taliban calls warned: "They are ready to engage, and we are the patrol they want to engage." Soon afterwards came the signs of an impending attack: local farmers hurrying their families into their compounds, moving livestock, followed by shots fired low across a field as we dived to the muddy ground.

Operation Tor Shezada is meant to seize control of Saidabad, one of the last towns in central Helmand under insurgent control. The areas were supposed to have been cleared in two high-profile operations – Panther's Claw and Moshtarak. The Marjah mission in February, highly publicised beforehand by Nato in an effort to persuade the Taliban to withdraw without a fight, had not gone totally to plan. The insurgents regrouped to carry out attacks on US forces and beheaded civic leaders. Before his sacking, General Stanley McChrystal described the situation as a "running sore".

Tor Shezada – "Black Prince" in the Dari language – is the beginning of a series of campaigns through which Nato commanders are seeking to inflict a military defeat on the insurgency. Meanwhile politicians in the West clamour for troops to be pulled out and the Afghan President Hamid Karzai edges towards a settlement with the insurgents which is bitterly opposed by the minority non-Pashtun communities in his country.

Jallaluddin Shah, an Afghan army captain, said: "We want to fight the Taliban. We need to beat them and then we can talk. If we do not do so, then we will pay the price in the future. They will keep their weapons and try to take over the country. The people in Kabul need to realise that. The government must know that they will have no authority unless they can protect these people."

While the political accusations and recriminations continue, British and Afghan troops were facing the violent reality on the ground. Progress was slow and dangerous and it is not known when Saidabad would be captured. Killings of civilians in Nato air strikes had caused widespread anger among Afghans and the policy now is to minimise both air and artillery attacks. Major Andy Garner, one of the officers in charge of the operation, called for strikes on two men spotted planting what appeared to be IEDs. However, the request was denied because it was felt at headquarters that the men must be given the benefit of the doubt: they may have been digging irrigation ditches.

Sitting on the roof of Rahmad Yar's compound watching a Javelin missile arc across the sky at a Taliban firing point, Kingsman Reese Curran, from the 1st Battalion the Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, showed how his life was saved by an inhaler during a previous firefight with the insurgents from Saidabad a few weeks ago.

The 24-year-old was on patrol in the Washaran area when he was shot, but the bullet was deflected by the inhaler. He was pulled clear, but in the ensuing firefight a comrade, Ponipate Tagitaginamothe, from Fiji, was killed as he went to Kingsman Curran's aide.

"My arm was injured, but I know I was extremely lucky, and we have to be lucky to be out here," said Kingsman Curran. "But Tagi died that day and that was very, very sad. He was a real mate and everyone misses him. All we can do is just carry on, but, I can tell you, this is a hard war."

Lieutenant Colonel Frazer Lawrence, commander of Combined Force, Nad-e-Ali, said: "So far it has gone well and we are making progress. We think their leadership may well have fled, but we shall see what happens in the next few days. We are dealing with insurgents who had caused a lot of damage and it is essential that we establish security in this area."

The Afghan civilians along the battle line were cautious on choosing sides, a hard-learned lesson from 30 years of strife. Ayub Jan, moving his tractor into the safety of a shed, shook his head. "This is our land, we need this land to feed our families. They are using this for fighting. We hope this will soon be over," he said.

"We all want to have roads, we want to have education for our children and this is something the Taliban cannot provide.

"But how long will the foreign troops stay, our Afghan troops stay? We are afraid of what will happen if they go away and the Taliban return."

His companion, Mohammed Ilyas, nodded. "We do not want foreign soldiers to stay in our country for long; we want the Afghan army to come and stay here," he said. "If they stay they will have the support of all the people. But we must wait and see what happens. We have to be careful."

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