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."

Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Urgently looking for Qualified Teachers and NQT's

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Urgently looking for Quali...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried