Few coalition or Afghan government forces have been in Helmand province, sofar considered a stronghold of the Taliban. Coalition presence in this area consisted of few forward operating bases, among them Camp Bastion located south of the desert road to Kandahar. In recent months British Army and Royal Marines have launched repeated attacks on Taliban strongholds and poppy growing and processing facilities in this area. The Helmand area, and particularly the Helmand river area known as the center for the poppy growing and trade, has been a safe haven for the Taliban, which took advantage of the lack of primary roads and mountain tracks leading directly the troubled area of Waziristan, north Pakistan, where Taliban established seized control over a large area. Southern Helmand is virtually entirely made up of a vast, empty desert, cut through by a single river, surrounded by a band of densely populated agricultural land. Insurgents infiltrate across a long and poorly guarded border.

U.S. Marines with the 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment hold a meeting with village elders in Helmand, Afghanistan, July 5, 2009. The 2nd Battalion is part of the ground combat element of Regiment Combat Team 3, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade. Its presence in the area restricts enemy groups' freedom of movement and helps to restore peace and prosperity to the local populace. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Pete Thibodeau)

The current offensive was launched after the situation in Southern Afghanistan continued deteriorating for the past two years. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said insurgent-initiated attacks from January to May this year across Afghanistan were about 60 percent higher than those for the same period last year. And Helmand was “in particular experiencing the highest increase” an ISAF spokesman said. Last month U.S. forces in Afghanistan were building up the task force to launch the summer offensive. About 10,000 Marines from the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade have arrived in Helmand, the southern province where the Taliban have widespread power despite repeated attacks by coalition forces since 2001.

“You don’t really need to chase and kill the Taliban,” said General Stanley McChrystal, the former special forces chief and newly appointed US commander of all allied troops in Afghanistan. “What you need to do is take away the one thing they absolutely have to have – and that’s access and the support of the people.” This, in a nutshell, is the basis of the coalition’s new strategy in Afghanistan, and the driving force behind the new tactical shift in Helmand, which sofar attempted to route the Taliban from their strongholds in the area but, lacking stamina, eroded into prolonged bloody skirmishes that did not leave much impression on the Taliban and lost the remaining faith the population had in the foreign forces. The new operation is aiming to change that trend.

A total of 17,000 US troops and 4,000 military trainers have been pledged for Afghanistan. The first unit to move in was the Combat Aviation Brigade, arriving in Kandahar by mid-May. The 2 MEB is currently deployed in the area and an Army Stryker Brigade Combat Team is on the way, to further reinforce operations in the south. The current reinforcement will increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 32,000 at the end of 2008 to 68,000 by the end of 2009. The pact signed early July during President Barack Obama’s visit to the Kremlin, permits 4,500 flights per year through Russian airspace, and is expected to boost the availability and efficiency of logistical support of forces and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.

Sofar the British forces were responsible for operations in Helmand, that consisted of a series of offensive moves directed against Taliban strongholds in the area. In order to avoid enemy attacks on their supply routes, British forces used sporadic attacks, employing helicopters and all-terrain vehicles to roam the open desert, avoiding the main roads where their supply convoys were likely to be hit by ambushes and IEDs. This vulnerability was clearly demonstrated in a recent attack where the commander of the Welsh Guards was killed. Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thornelow and Joshua Hammond, the driver were killed as their Viking tracked armored vehicle hit a buried IED on their way to Lashkar Gah.

The current deterioration in Afghanistan has lasted two years; According to General Petraeus, the commander of the U.S. central command, the Taliban is an adaptable and ruthless opponent that adjusts to the tactics, techniques and procedures employed by coalition forces. “We’ve seen violence go up in the fighting seasons in each of these last two years to levels considerably above those in previous years,” General Petraeus said. “So we’ve got to stop that trend and then we have to reverse it.” In the recent offensive all commanders have received new orders to prevent troops from shooting at the Taliban if there is any risk of civilian casualties.

Despite the impressive warfighting and bravery of the Brits, their mission was far from successfully. Major S N Miller of the Defence Intelligence Staff was recently quoted saying that the military and strategists have avoided the basic problems for much too long, commenting the drugs policy was “a disaster”. In an astonishing attack he added: “The British presence has not won hearts and minds. [in Afghanistan]”. According to Miller, “only one in 10 Afghans support our troops. The Army has become defeatist with commanders openly talking about an unwinnable war” he added. The foreign aid provided to Afghanistan is not invested in the rural area, where the Taliban rules. ‘Just £20million of the £450million British aid for Afghanistan is going to Helmand where it is desperately needed’ said Major Miller. Parts of Helmand, which borders Pakistan in the south, are firmly in Taliban hands and the region provides much of the heroin that funds the insurgents.

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