Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Black Watch storm Taleban stronghold

Scottish Battalion’s surprise airborne attack at midnight on Taleban positions in western Helmand. Good to see the Black Watch still in form. My family was always proud that my great-grandfather had been in the Black Watch -- JR

The Black Watch, whose experience of combat operations goes back to the Battle of Fontenoy and the Peninsula War, yesterday claimed success after taking part in one of the largest air assaults in its long and distinguished history.

The night-time attack was launched with the aim of seizing a Taleban stronghold in western Helmand province, and was carried out by 350 soldiers from 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (the Black Watch), flown in by British and American Chinook helicopters on Friday at midnight against Nad Ali, a western district of the restless province.

Last night Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Cartwright, Commanding Officer of The Black Watch, described it as “a major air assault operation with a large number of helicopters, both UK and US.” He added: “The Black Watch met some resistance but we were able to establish a firm foothold in the area.”

Yesterday the Army revealed that the air assault on Taleban strongholds in Helmand was one of the biggest of modern times.

It began when the Chinooks dropped Black Watch soldiers into territory which had previously been held by the Taleban, who were taken by surprise but returned fire. Troops taking part admitted that it had been a nerve-wracking mission. Private Christopher Watson said: “The Taleban are well organised. They know exactly what they are doing, and exactly how to get to us, and that is quite frightening for us.”

Lance Corporal Peter Barron added: “The Taleban fight to die; we fight to survive.”

Officials said Operation Panchai Palang — translated as Panther Claw — was carried out just before midnight last Friday to ensure safety for locals voting in national elections due to be held later in the summer.

Twelve Chinook helicopters, supported by 13 other aircraft including Apache and Black Hawk helicopter gunships, and Harrier jets, dropped more than 350 troops from the Black Watch into Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah. A further company of 100 members of The Black Watch followed overland in Viking armoured vehicles, along with Royal Engineers and teams responsible for neutralising roadside bombs, the greatest threat to British lives.

The aim of the attack was to secure a number of key canal and river crossings in order to establish a permanent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in the area, ahead of Afghanistan’s delayed elections on August 20.

“Operation Panchai Palang is a mission to clear and hold one of the few remaining Taleban strongholds,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Richardson, spokesman for British forces in Helmand. “The end result will provide lasting security for the local population, free from intimidation and violence by the insurgents.”

Army chiefs said the Taleban launched a number of attacks against The Black Watch but each was fought off, allowing the Scottish troops to secure three main crossing points: the Lui Mandey Wadi crossing, the Nahr-e-Burgha canal and the Shamalan canal. They also found 1.3 tonnes of opium poppy seed and a number of improvised explosive devices and mines before they could be laid.

Speaking about the mood in the Battalion, Lance Corporal Andy McKenzie said that they had gone into the action with two aims in mind — to defeat the Taleban and to come out of the action without losses. “I’m determined to come home alive, and I want everyone in my section to come home alive,” he said. “We’ve lost two friends since we’ve been over here and hopefully that is the last we lose.”

The Black Watch took over as the regional battle group in the south of Afghanistan on April 10. The deployment is their first since their role supporting US troops in the battle zone of Fallujah, in Iraq, which later featured in the award-winning National Theatre of Scotland play, Black Watch.

Sir Jock Stirrup, Chief of the Defence Staff, said in a television interview that the operation led by the Scottish battalion had been crucial.

“All operations in Afghanistan are significant but we’re in a particularly challenging period at the moment with the run-up to the presidential election,” he said.

“The provision of sufficient levels of security so that we can have a successful election is extremely important. Of course, this operation is all part of the wider ISAF plan to deliver that.”

However, Mullah Ghulam Akhund, a Taleban commander in Babaji, denied that his men were in retreat.

“We are fighting and the local people are supporting us,” he said. “They are very angry with the Afghan government for bringing Christian soldiers to Helmand. The Christian soldiers are bombing houses, killing people.”

He said four Taleban were injured, and two killed during the operation. “I reject any claim that the government is advancing,” he added. “No one has passed us. The fighting continues.”

Nad Ali is part of the so-called “Green Zone” bordering the Helmand River. A warren of heavily irrigated fields, canals and narrow-walled tracks, it is ideal country for insurgent ambushes and roadside bombs as Western forces are funnelled into so called “choke points”.

The British-led attack was supported by elements of 2nd US Marine Expeditionary Brigade, part of the surge of some 12,000 US troops who are reinforcing the British in Helmand this summer.

Afghan leaders confirmed the enormous scale of the operation. Speaking to The Times from Babaji, a local tribal elder, Haji Ahmad Sahan, said: “It is very serious fighting. All the time the US aircraft are bombing Babaji. Many houses have been destroyed.”

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