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British to lead major assault on Taliban

Neil Tweedie / London Telegraph | August 12 2006

British troops in southern Afghanistan are to lead a new offensive against the Taliban in an attempt to regain the initiative after weeks of intense fighting.

The plan will involve the use of mobile forces such as the Paras to attack insurgents in their strongholds, rather than defending fixed points.

Lt Gen David Richards, the British officer commanding the Nato force in the country, said yesterday that 10,000 troops would be involved in the campaign, which would last at least three months.

British, Canadian and other Nato troops will be replaced in towns and villages by 10,000 men of the Afghan army. The Nato forces will then be free to undertake search and destroy missions in areas the Taliban has regarded as safe havens.

But the viability of the plan has been thrown into question by the intensity of fighting in the southern province of Helmand, where the men of 16 Air Assault Brigade have been engaged in the most prolonged and intensive combat experienced by British troops since the Korean War. Twelve British servicemen have been killed in combat so far.

It remains to be seen if Afghan government troops can hold fixed points that have been subjected to constant attack.

Gen Richards said his men were tired but that morale was "very high".

"They know what we are trying to do, which is to get on the front foot," he said. "They need rest because some of them have been out there 40 days and almost nightly have come under attack.

"It is very bruising but as a commander I cannot tell you how proud I am of what they have done. Some of these soldiers have been under constant attack almost daily for about month but they have always stood their ground.

"But we don't want to sit passively drawing the Taliban to us for the next three months."

His words, implying that British troops have been on the "back foot" while attacked repeatedly by a determined enemy, are a world away from those of John Reid, the previous Defence Secretary, who expressed the hope that they might complete their mission without firing a shot in anger.

The British have been desperate to get on with reconstruction work to show a wavering population that they are not merely an occupation force. But that work cannot begin in earnest until the south has been secured.

The proposed campaign will focus on four southern provincial capitals - Lashkar Gar in Helmand, the scene of much of the British fighting and recent deaths, Kandahar, Qalat and Tarin Kowt.

Using another unfortunate phrase, Gen Richards said the Afghan army would be brought into areas where British forces were "pinned down" to succeed them in the defensive role.

"I can then free up very high quality troops to take on a more offensive role," he said. "Over the next four weeks we will take on this process of relocation."

The plan, he said, was to establish development zones in the four capitals in which it would be safe to begin development programmes.

Few of the promised reinforcements for the British contingent have so far arrived, and it is understood that just two extra Chinook helicopters - essential for mobile operations in an area almost devoid of proper roads - are to be sent.

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