Monday, February 19, 2007

Bush Calls For More NATO Forces To Afghanistan

200 British Troops Fight Taliban Over Dam

The US is now in control of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and President Bush and Vice President Cheney are ramping up pressure on NATO allies to supply more troops for the war. The reaction so far from NATO countries has been less than overwhelming.

Almost lost amidst the hype about the US "troop surge" into Iraq, for the Baghdad security crackdown, is the news that 3000 more US troops will be entering Afghanistan in the coming months.

But NATO field commanders are said to be annoyed that the Afghanistan "surge" has come so late, and is less in number than what is needed.

Insurgents and Taliban fighters are said to be scattered, but US intelligence claims fighters are regrouping across the border in wasteland Pakistan territory.

The United States has more than 26,000 troops in Afghanistan this year, the highest number since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.

2006 proved the deadliest year yet for both NATO forces and for the Afghans, with more than 4000 people killed.

There is much talk about a Taliban 'Spring Offensive', and the Taliban has repeatedly boasted of having anywhere from 2000 to 5000 suicide bomb attackers ready to hit NATO forces.

But even outside of the hype and propaganda, 20007 is looking set to be the most bloody, most deadly year in the Afghanistan war so far. The British have committed to keeping its troops in country for the rest of the year, and now Cheney is hitting up Australia to send back a few hundred of its highly prized Special Forces.

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An interesting first hand account follows of a full-blown British assault on a strong Taliban position, near an an essential piece of Afghanistan's infrastructure : the hydroelectric station at the Kajaki dam on the Helmand River.

The piece not only shows the effectiveness of British troops backed by Apache helicopters, it also reveals the continuing bind all NATO forces face in Afghanistan, of securing valuable positions and territory, yet not having the manpower to stay and keep the territory. The Taliban know NATO troops will always pull back from positions won, and they can move right back in.

200 Royal Marines were sent in to battle against Taliban fighters and to clear them out of positions they'd held at the dam. It was regarded as one of the biggest missions for the 3 Commando Brigade since it arrived in country.

The Taliban had to be routed so that Chinese engineers could begin work on the power station at the dam. But the Chinese wouldn't get to work until a six kilometre radius 'security zone' had been established.

From the London Times (excerpts) :

There is much talk of a Taleban spring offensive in Afghanistan. But for the M company Marines based in Kajaki, the past six weeks have already been filled with fighting in which the initiative has been their own. Indeed, 11 troop’s 23-year-old commander, a second lieutenant who completed his training in December, has already led his men into assaults in which they have fixed bayonets on at least four occasions.

10 troop followed on into the assault immediately behind these Marines and, as the first glimmers of dawn appeared, the sky clattered with rotor blades. A huge air operation, involving a Nimrod, B1 bombers, F18 jets, Harriers, Apache attack helicopters and UAV surveillance drones, was backing the attack. From 35,000ft down to 500ft, the air was allocated.

As 10 troop moved in a fast, hunched shuffle across the open ground to their target, a neighbouring compound, the complexities of the objective became apparent quickly.

The compounds, part of Shomali Ghulbah, a large curving settlement set in an undulating plain of sand and shingle, were protected by 10ft walls.

“They are ninja,” a Marine forward air-controller had told me two days earlier. “Those walls have had hundred of years worth of baked mud and brick built into them. You can fire what you like at them with little noticeable effect.”

As the Marines scrambled inside, I saw a disorientating labyrinth of narrow internal alleys connected by crawl holes, interspersed with well shafts and tunnels.

At first, no combat was given. In classic insurgent style, the Taleban had melted away from the attack.

But just over an hour into the assault, and with the M company Marines barely a quarter of the way through clearing their objectives, the first Taleban fire came in on the west flank of 10 troop, followed by a rocket-propelled grenade.

From their positions among the wadi beds and compound roofs, some Marines returned fire. Then an Apache helicopter circled, guided to its target by a forward air-controller.

“Have an Apache guarding your flank and you know you’ll be all right,” said Captain William Mackenzie-Green, 10 troop’s commander, as the helicopter wheeled overhead. “The Taleban can’t stand it, though. We know from their intercepted communications that they call it ‘the mosquito’. They know exactly how long its flight time is to reach us, and so know exactly how long they have got to fight before hiding.”

This time though, the Taleban did not hide quickly enough. A Hellfire rocket from an Apache hit the building from which they were firing. A watching air-controller confirmed three dead.

Blown through the roof, one of the Taleban dead lay in a field. A figure rushed forward to collect the body in a wheelbarrow. Another picked up a severed arm.

Carrying no visible weapon, they could not be engaged. “Their casualty evacuation procedure is as good as ours,” Captain Mackenzie-Green said. “They sweep up their dead and wounded immediately. We seldom find the bodies.”

There is a certain sneaking respect among the Marines for their enemy. Though they do not regard the Taleban as especially competent, the Marines acknowledge their courage in the hammering they have received from British forces in recent weeks.

A sharper gunfight began soon afterwards as seven or eight Taleban again fired on 10 troop’s flank. The exchange lasted for several minutes as the Marines, deployed along the walls and roof of a compound, engaged their foes across an open field.

Captain Cairns again brought in the Apache, which strafed the Taleban with .30 cannon fire. They died.

...without the manpower to consolidate the ground that they clear, the Marines’ operations conclude with their returning to base.

By midday M company had consolidated at their farthest objective in Shomali Ghulbah as another company came up and advanced.

A few Taleban had been killed by Apaches on the flanks but the Marines’ main advance had been unchallenged.

As an F18 bombed Taleban trenches on a distant hill the clouds darkened and the rain came down in heavy, lancing sheets.

Finally, having cleared their objectives, without the loss of a single Marine, the two companies regrouped and returned slowly to base as the night fell once more. It was a lengthy march back. The wadis had been filled with knee-high running water; the flat fields turned to rinks of sliding mud. Behind the Marines, the silent, abandoned compounds disappeared back into the blackness.

And just over 12 hours later, early yesterday afternoon, 14 rockets slammed into the area around the Marines’ Kajaki base, fired from the north bank of the Helmand river.

The Taleban were back.

Bush Calls On NATO To Increase Troop Numbers

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Pakistan Digs In For Spring Taliban Offensive

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