A massive British led operation in Afghanistan has seen 1,500 troops involved in two weeks of fierce fighting in rain and mud to successfully secure a large area of Central Helmand province previously under Taliban influence.
British troops from Lima Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines
British troops from Lima Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines, carry out operations in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan to bring security to the surrounding areas
Operation SOND CHARA began in mid-December and lasted throughout the Christmas period. It involved British, Danish and Estonian troops of Task Force Helmand (TFH) along with members of the Afghan Security Forces (ASF) and was conceived to provide better security to the Provincial Capital, Lashkar Gah following recent attacks and to set the conditions necessary to enable secure voter registration to take place in early 2009.
While being hailed as a success, the operation was not without cost. Royal Marines Lance Corporal Ben Whatley, Tony Evans, Georgie Sparks, Corporal Robert Deering and Rifleman Stuart Nash, as well as three civilians, lost their lives.
Commander Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Gordon Messenger Royal Marines, said:
"This was a very successful operation that demonstrated the ability of the Task Force to surprise, overmatch, manoeuvre and influence over a huge area. Whilst our efforts have made a significant contribution to the overall Nad E'Ali security plan, it has not been without sacrifice, and we will forever remember the contribution of those who died.
"This is just the start and these operations do not end here. It is for us to drive the tempo, we will continue to surprise and overmatch the Taliban at a time and place of our choosing, not theirs. We are standing shoulder to shoulder with our Afghan counterparts and sharing the same risk and determination against the enemy. Both myself and my Afghan colleagues are determined to provide enduring security and to help Governor Mangal to spread his governance across Helmand."
OP SOND CHARA (which means Red Dagger in Pashtun and is named after the commando patch worn by members of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines), was one of the largest operations mounted by 3 Commando Brigade since the invasion of Iraq.
The units supporting 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines (currently providing command of Task Force Helmand), on the operation were:
* 42 Commando Royal Marines
* C Company 2 Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment (2PWRR),
* A Squadron and 1 Troop C Sqn Queen's Dragoon Guards (QDG)
* B Company 1 RIFLES
* United Kingdom Land Forces Command Support Group (UKLF CSG)
* 29 Commando Royal Artillery
* 24 Commando Engineer Regiment
* Estonian Company (Including Mortar Troop)
* Danish Troops - Jutland Dragoons Regiment (B Coy (Armoured Personnel Carriers, A troop (Leopard tanks, Medical Section); Royal Danish Engineers Regiment; Combat Engineers Section
* Afghan National Security Forces.
Royal Marine Commandos use natural cover provided by vegitation growing alongside an irrigation ditch
Royal Marine Commandos use natural cover provided by vegitation growing alongside an irrigation ditch during Op SOND CHARA
[Picture: Cpl John Scott Rafoss USMC ISAF HQ]
Operations in the area had been conducted to probe and gain essential intelligence and Afghan National Security Forces were involved in detailed collaborative planning. The Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) was consulted at a very early stage to advise on an effective immediate stabilisation plan.
The Governor of Helmand province, Gulab Mangal, was instrumental in the planning of the operation which provided him with an opportunity to extend the authority of the legitimate government of Afghanistan into an area that previously was under Taliban influence.
Over the two week duration of the operation there were several phases.
The build up to OP SOND CHARA included a successful helicopter raid on 7 December. Afghan forces, supported by 42 Commando Group Royal Marines, uncovered a sizeable quantity of drugs and weapons in the Nawa area to the south of Lashkar Gah. See Related News>>>
Afghan and British reconnaissance elements, supported by Danish Leopard tanks then began forays into areas south of Nad E'Ali. The enemy was not at his strongest here, but these manoeuvres were designed to confuse and dislodge him. Under the cover of darkness, the Task Force tanks advanced from deep in the desert towards enemy positions. A battle ensued with the tanks and light reconnaissance vehicles being engaged with machine guns and rocket propelled grenades. The long range and high precision of the tank fire, however, together with the speed with which they could appear unexpectedly caught the enemy by surprise and in a final assault the enemy fired 107mm rockets at the tanks and recce vehicles, only to be met by return fire from the tank guns, mortars and missiles. In total, 31 tank rounds were fired onto the enemy positions and this dealt the enemy a final, deadly blow.
A Danish Officer said:
"Although tanks are big and heavy, the precise fire they delivered proved to be perfect close support to light reconnaissance troops on the ground. The Taliban were dealt a stinging defeat by a well-prepared force consisting of Afghan, British and Danish elements."
Out of respect for the religious beliefs of the Afghan people, there were no offensive operations conducted during the festival of Eid Al-Addha (8 – 10 December).
But with the build up and preparation of forces complete, the main phase of SOND CHARA began overnight on 11 December.
42 Commando Group Royal Marines was tasked to conduct a simultaneous helicopter and ground manoeuvre assault into the main objective, in the region of Nad E'Ali, north-west of Lashkar Gah. The shock of their rapid insertion and weight of forces surprised the enemy and put him on the back foot in this key insurgent area where, to date, few International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) had been. This initial insertion was a complete success and achieved total surprise.
Royal Marine Commandos muster at an abandoned village in Helmand province
Drenched in rain and mud, Royal Marine Commandos muster at an abandoned village in Helmand province
[Picture: Sergeant James Elmer ABIPP RLC]
Tasked to deliver "bubbles" of security in which to build and establish two patrol bases and to disrupt the enemy's ability to operate and manoeuvre, fierce fighting ensued over the coming days.
The "Black Knights" of K Company, 42 Commando and their Commando Recce Force day by day pushed the Taliban away from the patrol base areas, the marines fighting through mud and complex terrain and at each turn defeating their foe.
Concurrently the Royal Engineers from 24 Commando Engineer Regiment continued their construction work on the rudimentary patrol bases. Plant vehicles were used to improve and upgrade the narrow canal route joining the patrol bases, which had deteriorated due to the weather conditions. In addition to constructing the patrol base, the Sappers (Royal Engineers) provided close engineer support to the infantry on the ground, through explosive entry and search expertise into a number of enemy held compounds.
Sapper (Matt) Lawrence, 59 Cdo RE (part of 24 Commando Engineer Regiment) said:
"As part of 59 Commando Royal Engineers and like all those involved in OP SOND CHARA, I found it very challenging; long days and nights conducting a wide spectrum of engineering tasks, from building protection for the troops to providing basic infrastructure such as latrines inside of the patrol bases and most of this was conducted under enemy fire."
Corporal Cunningham, Section Commander 77 Armoured Engineer Squadron, tasked with building a Patrol Base to the south of Nad E'Ali described the conditions:
"Working in these conditions was really difficult – at times we were constructing in torrential rain with mud up to our knees, at others, whenever the enemy saw us building they would have a go – there were a couple of close calls. The lads grafted though and the Patrol Base perimeter wall is complete – we are trying to make the place a bit more comfortable now."
"Lightning" Lima Company from 42 Commando operated in the area between the two fledgling patrol bases, interdicting insurgent routes and with their partnered Afghan Security Forces, spread a coalition presence across this previously hostile terrain. All the while Commandos acted as a mechanical camel train ferrying stores across the desert to reinforce and sustain the patrol bases.
Describing this initial phase of the operation, Lt Col Charlie Stickland, Commanding Officer of 42 Commando Group Royal Marines, said at the time:
"We're now in the southern sector of Nad E'Ali. We air assaulted in at night; K Company went to an area of compounds which we will now turn into a patrol base and then we pushed Lima Company some 6 km to the south east to act as a block to cut off the routes from the South. Simultaneous with that we moved our Command Recce Force in from the eastern side again to seize another area which controls a main dominating route.
Royal Marine Commandos in Afghan complex
Royal Marine Commandos from Lima Company use satellite imagery to negotiate a complex of compounds in southern Afghanistan during Operation SOND CHARA
[Picture: Cpl John Scott Rafoss USMC ISAF HQ]
"Thankfully all the insertions went very swiftly and very well and we unhinged the insurgents. The next step we need to make is to find out who the elders are in this area and start our influence in terms of why we're here and what we're seeking to do in the whole Nad E'Ali area over the coming months. So a good start but we remain balanced and ready should anything unfold."
As day broke, the fortification of the compound was ongoing. The Royal Marines and the Afghan National Army then carried out joint patrols to dominate the ground and to make contact with the local population in order to reassure them and make clear their intention to bring enduring security and stability to the area
At the same time, early on 11 December, the in-place Battle Group comprising J Company from 42 Commando, C Company, 2nd Battalion The Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, and elements from the Afghan National Army moved into an area called Shin Kalay, west of Lashkar Gah. There they defeated enemy forces, enabling the Afghan National Police to establish check points and the Afghan National Army to conduct perimeter security patrols. Green flags of celebration were seen flying over residential compounds as a sign that the local people were pleased to see security being re-established and the enemy being driven out, followed up quickly by shuras held by the District Governor.
With the southern half of Nad E'Ali secure, British troops were tasked to clear the remainder, where intelligence reports suggested the enemy would be concentrated. Joined by an Estonian Infantry Company, 42 Commando Group, also reinforced now by L Company 42 Commando, linked up to the north west of Nad E'Ali. On the morning of 17 December, in terrible weather, they fought a gritty battle for the town of Zarghun Kalay. This saw the fiercest and most sustained fighting of the operation, taking two days to break into the town.
Enemy forces were reported to be well dug-in and later that day, as the assault began, heavy enemy resistance was encountered, aided by the poor weather and rough terrain. Throughout the afternoon, 105mm light guns were fired in support of the forward elements, also supported by Apache attack helicopters and US Cobra helicopters.
The defeat of enemy forces continued at first light on the morning of 18 December with support from Apache helicopters and artillery. The intensity of the fighting was such that the enemy fled to the north in the face of this overwhelming firepower.
At 0330 that morning, the Gunners from 29 Commando Royal Artillery attached to the Battle Group, stepped off on foot and headed to the Form Up Position (FUP). Following several hours of heavy rain, the ground had turned into a quagmire. As one Gunner described the scene:
"We were up to our ankles in muddy water. As we waited for "H Hour", with rain bouncing off our faces, one of the guys turned to me and whispered, "are we in Sennybridge?" The rain did not let up for three days and it was a definite case of 'Gortex 'til Endex'."
Commandos investigate a derelict building complex
Royal Marine Commandos investigate a derelict building complex during Operation SOND CHARA
[Picture: Cpl John Scott Rafoss USMC ISAF HQ]
On 19 December, the Commanding Officer of the Battle Group, Colonel Martin Smith Royal Marines, the District Governor and Colonel Allawulla (Afghan Army Battalion Commander) conducted a shura (meeting) in the mosque in the centre of Zhargun Kalay. The shura was well attended by around 200 tribal elders and local people. This marked the start of a positive transition in the town, with people returning to their homes and going about their normal lives.
The period over Christmas itself saw the final phase of the operation. Early on Christmas morning, a helicopter assault by 42 Commando Group Royal Marines began on Chah-E-Anjir, an infamous safe haven for the enemy. This assault would significantly disrupt the enemy in this strategically key area. One of the objectives taken was identified as a key enemy command and control and logistics node, which was linked to the recent attacks on Lashkar Gah. After an initially fierce break-in battle, all manner of Taliban equipment was discovered.
Commenting on the success of the operation in Nad E'Ali, Colonel Martin Smith, said:
"We have conducted operations in Nad E'Ali district in conjunction with the Afghan National Army to expel Taliban forces and establish control on behalf of the legitimate Government of Afghanistan. These operations have been successful: many insurgents have been killed or have left the area and peace is returning to the heart of the district.
"There is still much work to do to establish permanent security in all parts of Nad E'Ali, but the Afghan Police and Army are expanding their operations to consolidate on their recent gains and life is already improving for many local citizens. This is a huge opportunity for the people of Nad E'Ali. We do not underestimate the challenges ahead but will do everything in our power to support them in their quest to be free of the oppressive influence of the Insurgents."
The two weeks of hard fighting in December has gained the Afghan Government more effective control over 180 square kilometers of territory which has been the source of instability since the summer of 2008.
Stabilisation activity has now started in Nad E'Ali. Military Stabilisation Support Teams (MSST) have delivered immediate assistance to local nationals, conducted rapid needs assessments in areas not previously assessed and organised a number of cash for work projects. Projects are in place to rehabilitate a Community Health Centre and a school.
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