Under the cover of darkness, Nato troops draw Taliban into their trap

Kim Sengupta joins 'Operation Black Prince' targeting deadly insurgents in Helmand

The first wave of air assaults began at 2.38am, the helicopters flying low and fast into the swaying poppy fields surrounding the dark silhouettes of the walled compounds. This was Operation Tor Shezada, designed to clear insurgent fighters who have been carrying out relentless attacks as the fighting season gets underway.

The four Chinooks ferrying in the troops, with Apache gunships providing cover, was part of the attempt to capture Saidabad, the last town held by the Taliban in central Helmand and a base from which they have been operating as they attack British, American and Afghan forces in Nad-e-Ali, Marjah and Helmand.

The mission comes at a time of intense international focus on Afghanistan with controversies ignited by the Wikileaks revelations and David Cameron's charge that Pakistan is continuing to support the Taliban and export terror.

The timing of the operation is critical, coming in the wake of the Kabul conference seen as the "last-chance saloon" for the international community to hammer out a solution to this increasingly bloody and costly war.

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 as 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.

The operation had begun with US Marines moving up from Marjah and then withdrawing in a feint, to draw out some of the 200 fighters from the well-guarded enclave. This, it was hoped by the Nato commanders, would distract the enemy as the main assault by British troops came from Nad-e-Ali in the north.

Hundreds of troops from Combined Force Nad-e-Ali began the move after a 48-hour delay due to the weather. The Brigade Reconnaissance Force landed next to a cluster of compounds where a group of men could be spotted on the roof. In the event, there was little resistance there or in the surrounding farm buildings they went through.

The area around Saidabad has been on the receiving end of repeated attacks from the Taliban fighters, with soldiers injured at British patrol base Azadi. Lance Corporal Kylie Watson, an army medic, was on duty when two of the casualties were brought in.

She said: "The first time a bullet went through the side of this guy's face and exited on the other side. He suffered some injuries to his jaw but nothing more serious. A little later a guy who was standing on a sangar [watchtower] got shot in the arm." Last night British troops were heading south towards Saidabad. Lieutenant Olly Field, commanding 9 Platoon, 1st Battalion, Duke of Lancaster's Regiment, said: "We have had repeated engagements with the insurgents in this area. It seems this could well be a busy night."

Taliban "chatter" on the radio waves indicated that their fighters were regrouping to launch counter-attacks. Lieutenant Colonel Frazer Lawrence, of the 1st Battalion, Duke of Lancaster's Regiment – who is in charge of the operation – said: "We have a particularly active group of insurgents who have been regularly commuting to carry out attacks in this area. This operation is essential to establish security and we intend to make sure that the insurgents are not able to operate from this area again. It is very much early days, but so far, it is going well." The Taliban may not have been aware of the details of what was coming, but they had prepared for combat by what has become their weapon of choice – roadside bombs positioned along the paths.

The Americans faced repeated ambushes as they made their way north along canals and farmland their intent to kill or capture as many of the enemy as they could.

The Marjah mission, highly publicised beforehand by Nato in an effort to persuade the Taliban to withdraw without a fight, has not gone totally to plan, with the insurgents regrouping to carry out attacks on US forces and beheading civic leaders.

General Stanley McChrystal described the situation as a "running sore" before his sacking by Barack Obama.

The Talib group in Saidabad – a town with a population of 6,000 – has been carrying out attacks in Marjah in an area nicknamed "Crazy Sadie" and "Budalla Qulp" by the Americans.

Eliminating the group's leader is a top priority for the US and British forces.

Nad-e-Ali, sitting on the feeder route to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has seen its share of violence. Local people acknowledge that the security situation has significantly improved and there is ample evidence of an upturn in commercial activity.

The Taliban, however, have not gone away and they appear during the day as well as the night to remind the locals of this fact. Hazibullah Mohammed is a shopkeeper at the town's market which has doubled in size in the last year. "But that also means that Talibs can take money from more [people]," he laughed. "Security is good now and they do not threaten any longer, but some of the men pay because they do not know what is going to happen in the future. You cannot blame them because we do not know how long we shall have this security. People around here do not like the Taliban, but have learned that they will have to live with all the sides."

That is what 80-year-old Adem Ali has been doing for most of his life. "My father used to tell me of when the British were here in the time of the old kings. I remember the Americans came to Helmand 50 years ago and built all these canals and factories. Then they left and the Russians came and all the fighting began. We had the mujahedin and the Taliban. Now the British and the Americans are back, and, if I live long enough, I'll get to see the Russians come back."

Surrounded by piles of shoes he was mending by the roadside, Sayyid Ali said: "We are poor people and we cannot make a lot of noise. I work with shoes and I know that people will always [provide] work for me.

"But I want my children to go to school and the British are building schools. That is good, but what will happen when they go? If they do go we must be sure the Afghan government can protect us."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?