British forces are spearheading an offensive this weekend aimed at driving the Taliban out of a strategically vital area of southern Afghanistan. The battle could also decide whether other Nato members are willing to continue fighting in the country.
Some 2,000 British troops, including Gurkhas, are taking part in Operation Palk Wahel ("sledgehammer blow") in Helmand province, the largest for several months. The assault began on Wednesday with a bridge being thrown across the Helmand river to get at Taliban strongholds close to the Kajaki dam, which could supply hydro-electricity and irrigation water to a large area of southern Afghanistan if it is restored. Another 500 American, Estonian, Czech, Danish and Afghan soldiers have joined the offensive, supported by helicopters, attack aircraft and the first large-scale use of Warrior armoured vehicles.
Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Eaton, the spokesman for Task Force Helmand, told The Independent on Sunday that Palk Wahel continued a series of operations since early summer which aimed to free areas from Taliban interference, supply security and create the conditions for governance and development. But Christopher Langton, an Afghanistan expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the latest offensive was the most significant.
"With winter approaching, there are only another three to four weeks to secure the area," said Mr Langton, a retired colonel. "The Taliban will do their best to retain a foothold near Kajaki, which is the centre of the whole British strategy. There is a lot riding on this: if the offensive fails, many other things will fail. If it succeeds, many other things will succeed."
The most important outcome, he said, could be the effect on crucial decisions being taken in other Nato countries on whether to continue their missions in Afghanistan. The Dutch cabinet is expected to decide early next month on extending the mission of the country's 1,300 troops in Uruzgan province, only a few miles from Kajaki, when it expires next summer. Australia, which has more than 500 soldiers in the province, has indicated that they would leave if the Dutch pulled out, while Canada, which has 2,500 troops in Kandahar province, bordering Helmand, is also debating its role.
The Canadians have suffered proportionally heavier losses than any other contingent – 70 soldiers and one diplomat, compared to 81 British deaths among a force three times larger – and the public is split between continuing to fight or opting out of combat, like several other Nato countries. The minority Conservative government is resisting calls for an early vote on whether to extend the combat mission beyond February 2009.
Canada and the Netherlands are expected to call on other Nato countries to share the combat burden at an informal ministers' meeting late in October, but numerous previous appeals have fallen on deaf ears. While Britain has stressed that it is in Afghanistan for the long haul, the weaker commitment of other members of the alliance could mean that British forces are pressed to take an ever-wider role.
Recently the commander of the Canadian task force in Kandahar, Brigadier-General Guy Laroche, was quoted as saying that each new deployment of soldiers found themselves having to recapture the same ground as their predecessors. "We essentially have to start from scratch," he told a Canadian newspaper. "Everything we have done in that regard [holding two strategic districts bordering the Kajaki area in Helmand] is not a waste of time, but close to it, I would say."
Alain Pellerin, director of Canada's Conference of Defence Associations, told the IoS that ground was lost last year because "we had to improvise". Troop shortages meant the Afghan army was pressed into service before it was ready. "It is improving all the time, but it won't be able to take over in Kandahar until 2010 or 2011," said Mr Pellerin, a retired colonel. "If we abandoned the province in 2009, the Afghan mission would be finished."
Mr Langton said repeated announcements of British offensives in one narrow area, the Helmand river valley between Gereshk and Kajaki, had also created an impression of "small tactical successes, then steps backward".
The Ministry of Defence has announced the start of at least eight operations along the upper reaches of the Helmand river this year, the main one being Achilles, in March, followed by several sub-operations and smaller offensives. But few details tend to emerge afterwards, apart from the circumstances in which service personnel have been killed. At the end of April the MoD said that Operation Silicon, a component of Achilles, was launched to drive the Taliban out of the town of Gereshk, a key location in the development zone Britain is attempting to set up in central Helmand.
This was the first indication that the insurgents controlled the town. In June the Taliban was said to have been cleared "throughout the Upper Sangin Valley, between Sangin and Kajaki", but two more operations have since been launched in the same area.
The situation is also unclear in the Garmsir district further south, where there has been a smaller concentration of British losses amid repeated clashes with Taliban recruits coming over the border from Pakistan.
Lt-Col Eaton said the fighting had "ebbed and flowed", but progress had been made. "Sangin [town] has changed hands on a number of occasions, and when we recaptured it in the spring, it was deserted," he said. "But since then people have gained enough confidence to return. Crops have been planted and the market has reopened. That's what we are seeking to achieve – to spread our influence, like an inkblot on the map. The areas we have targeted this time will not be left vacant for the Taliban to return."
Nato forces have killed several senior Taliban figures in Helmand, including Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Osmani, commander in southern Afghanistan, and the provincial commander, Mullah Dadullah. He was replaced by his brother, Dadullah Mansour, who may also be dead. "The heavy attrition on the Taliban is significant in sapping the morale of the 'part timers' – farmers who pick up a gun," said Lt-Col Eaton. "If that continues, it is going to prove a powerful incentive to come over to our side."
Further reading: 'Battlefield Afghanistan', by Mike Ryan, published by Spellmount (£12.99)Reuse content