As elections in Afghanistan approach, thousands of British, American and Afghan soldiers are conducting a joint operation to clear the Taliban from an area north of Lashkar Gah and extend security to the area.
Soldiers respond to enemy fire
As well as American soldiers from the US-led Task Force Leatherneck, who have recently arrived in Helmand province, there are 3,000 soldiers from Task Force Helmand involved in Operation PANCHAI PALANG, or Panther's Claw.
In the latest phase of the operation, hundreds of soldiers from the Welsh Guards Battle Group, Light Dragoons Battle Group and 3 SCOTS (The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland) Battle Group have seized key canal crossing points and other areas.
Sadly, three British soldiers have lost their lives in the operation this weekend and, in an earlier phase last week, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, and Trooper Joshua Hammond of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment were also killed.
The main aims of the operations are to extend security throughout the areas so as to allow the local population to enjoy a normal life and take part in the forthcoming elections free from intimidation and violence.
The UK operation, with Danish, Estonian and US forces integral to the Task Force working alongside many other nations in support, is taking place in a heavily-populated area between Gereshk, the economic hub of Helmand, and Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital.
Soldiers shouts back information
By improving security and allowing freedom of movement the operation will also allow reconstruction and development to take place straight after military operations are complete.
The first phase of Operation PANCHAI PALANG began just over two weeks ago with more than 350 soldiers from 3 SCOTS launching an airborne assault along the Nahr-e-Burgha canal, some 10 miles (16km) north of Lashkar Gah. The Scottish unit secured three crossing points along the waterway to form a significant barrier to movement for the insurgent forces. See Related News >>>
Further ground forces including 'Warriors' from the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan National Police, joined 3 SCOTS as the positions were strengthened and the secured area was extended. This also involved building a checkpoint position nicknamed 'Hadrian's Wall' which will provide security for the local population and protection from the illegal taxing conducted by the insurgents as locals return to the previously deserted bazaar to resume normal life.
Eleven days ago, the second phase began and saw the Welsh Guards, supported by their Afghan comrades, moving up the Shamalan canal to take control of 13 vital crossing points. Nearer Gereshk, in a co-ordinated move, Danish forces captured further crossings to cover the advance.
Operating in WMIK (Weapons Mounted Installation Kit) Land Rovers, Jackals, Scimitar reconnaissance vehicles, Mastiff armoured vehicles, and on foot, the British troops moved up to capture the important crossings. The units encountered some enemy activity and were engaged in some prolonged fire-fights with the enemy sometimes lasting several hours. On occasions they have been involved at close quarters.
Sappers strengthen defences around a bridge on the Shamalan Canal
Using their rifles, light and heavy machine guns, grenades, shoulder-launched missiles and Javelin missiles, supported by Fire Support Teams controlling the mortars, artillery and air assets including Apache, Harrier and Tornado plus Royal Engineers to deal with the improvised explosive device (IED) threat, the soldiers fought back the insurgent attacks and seized key positions.
The Taliban engaged the advancing British troops from nearby compounds with limited effect.
Unable to match the firepower and speed of assault, the insurgents left IEDs in their wake.
Tragically, on Wednesday 1 July, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards, Lt Col Rupert Thorneloe, and Trooper Joshua Hammond of the 2nd Royal Tank Regiment were killed when their vehicle struck a device.
Demonstrating the risk faced and the skills of British and US bomb disposal experts, almost 100 IEDs have been recovered since the operation began. 80 per cent of IEDs that detonate actually kill or injure members of the Afghan population.
The loss of two servicemen only served to harden the resolve of the Welsh Guards to continue their advance, seizing control of the canal crossings, cutting off supply routes and preventing the insurgents from fleeing the area.
Troops carry wounded soldier to helicopter
With the insurgents disrupted, the next stage of the operation started in the early hours of the morning of Friday 3 July. Over 750 British and Afghan troops, including The Light Dragoons Battle Group and companies from 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (2 MERCIAN), began sweeping through the area both in vehicles and on foot, moving through crops criss-crossed with irrigation ditches to secure the area whilst remaining vigilant to the ever-present threat of improvised explosive devices.
To the north, the UK and US IED teams from Task Force Helmand recovered in excess of 50 IEDs laid in the area of the Nahr-e-Burgha canal - evidence of the threat that still exists.
The Afghan National Security Forces, a vital component of the fighting force, mentored by the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams of 2 MERCIAN, have been reassuring the local population, explaining the mission to them and winning their consent. They have been leading with the search of numerous mud compounds with their high, thick walls and are helping to man checkpoints at the recently captured crossings.
The operation is ongoing, with more ground covered each day. Over coming days, Operation PANCHAI PALANG will seek to expand the influence of Afghan governance, to win the consent of the local people, and to enable them to feel safe and willing to take part in the forthcoming presidential elections.
Lieutenant Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, said:
"Operation PANCHAI PALANG is a strategically important operation complementing the US-led Operation KHANJARI. It has several phases, some of which are complete, others which are still to come.
"Whilst maintaining the integrity of the ongoing operation, I think it's safe to say that we have made significant progress so far. We have already secured the crossings along two major waterways to the north of Lashkar Gah, recovered a large number of IEDs, fought back the enemy in several locations and cleared villages along the way.
"We have suffered losses, but we will not be deterred. Throughout the rest of this challenging operation we will consolidate these gains and expand our area of influence so that lasting security and stability can be restored to this region."
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