Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Peter Graff, "Taliban repel British assault in south Afghanistan," Reuters, December 5, 2006.

GARMSER, Afghanistan (Reuters) - British Marines attacked a Taliban-held valley in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday but withdrew after a ferocious counterattack that withstood air strikes and artillery fire, witnesses said.

One Royal Marine was killed and a second wounded during the battle, the UK Helmand Task Force (UKTF) said.

Scores of soldiers ran across a bridge over the Helmand River under a full moon shortly before daybreak and began sweeping south through wheatfields in the south of the province, the opium center of the world's major producer.

A Reuters cameraman said the Marines initially faced only sporadic resistance but when they advanced, Taliban fighters launched a ferocious, organized riposte with heavy weapons and tried to outflank the British troops.

The fierce resistance illustrated the challenges facing the NATO troops in Afghanistan where they are trying to subdue well-armed Taliban and other militants bolstered by profits from a record opium crop, according to Afghan and foreign officials.

Major Andy Plewes, who led the Royal Marines of Zulu Company 45 Commando, on the assault, said the soldiers had expected resistance: "What we didn't know was how strong it was."

"We don't currently have enough forces in the area to hold ground completely and that has to be done by Afghan security forces," he told a Reuters reporter with the Marines.

The 32,000-strong force NATO-led International Security Assistance Force took over command of the war against the Taliban from U.S.-led forces in October and has launched a string of offensives.

British casualties have been mounting since ISAF took over command of operations in southern Afghanistan at the end of July. Britain has lost 41 soldiers since the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, the bulk of them this year.

The British forces, who make up the bulk of NATO forces in Helmand, opened fire from light armored vehicles and engaged small groups of guerrillas with mortars and machine guns.

Afghan police and soldiers have so far held just the bridgehead and the short road at the north end of the valley, criss-crossed by networks of ancient canals that make Helmand fertile enough to produce a third of the world's opium crop.


The Taliban withstood barrages of air strikes from Apache helicopters, 500 pound bombs dropped by B1 bombers and withering cannon fire from A-10 attack jets before the British finally withdrew after a 10-hour battle.

The Taliban fighters, who say they have the expertise to defeat the strongest army, had dug sophisticated networks of trenches often leading from compound to compound.

This year has seen the worst fighting since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban's strict Islamist government in 2001. About 4,000 people have died, a quarter of them civilians.

The alliance troops were deployed to aid reconstruction and to help Afghanistan's government by build stability. But they have been increasingly drawn into battles with the Taliban and other militants in the opium poppy-growing south.

Tuesday's assault was the latest in a series of battles by British forces around the bridgehead.

Major Plewes said he considered the assault a success as they had cleared out areas near the "D.C.," a tiny strip of road and ruined buildings on the eastern side of the Helmand River.

But without more Afghan troops to hold the ground there was little hope of doing much more.

"In the mean time we have to try to provide as much as security to the D.C. as possible," said Plewes.

© 2006 Reuters

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