Operation MOSHTARAK, the Afghan-led initiative to assert government authority in central Helmand province, has completed its first clearing operations, with ‘hot stabilization’ already underway in the UK area of operations.
UK Military spokesman Major General Gordon Messenger gave a comprehensive account of events on Operation MOSHTARAK over the past 24 to 48 hours at a press briefing in London on Sunday 14 February 2010.
Maj Gen Messenger set out the context. The Regional Command (South) plan for the south of Afghanistan has three phases: Phase one was to rearrange forces around Kandahar so as to improve security around the city and its routes, so improving freedom of movement of the people. Phase two, currently underway, was focused on securing the population in central Helmand. Phase three would involve sending forces back to Kandahar to support Government influence in the city and developing the capacity of the police.
There were three reasons for signaling the operation in Central Helmand in advance. First, to give the Taliban a choice. Second, to make the population aware that the operation was about to unfold. Third, it allowed a much greater level of Afghan involvement and ownership, and subsequently Afghan participation.
Afghans had been involved early on, and at all levels. The operation was briefed to President Karzai some weeks ago, and Governor Gulab Mangal had led Shuras beforehand. Afghan National Army (ANA) and Police were heavily involved in the planning.
The Major General explained that the operations were broadly about expanding security and Afghan Government influence to the areas of Chah-e-Anjir, Western Babaji – otherwise known as the PEAR, Trikh Nawa, and Marjah. Without these areas being cleared, stabilization operations in the area would have been vulnerable.
Shaping operations had begun before the start of Operation MOSHTARAK. A US Task Force had secured Five-Ways Junction and crossing points along Canal 56.
At the same time the Household Cavalry and Danish Leopard Tanks conducted operations in the Bolan Desert to safeguard the area around Lashkar Gah and disrupt insurgents’ freedom of movement to the East.
The Scots Guards had isolated key aras in South Nad Ali, and Task Force Leatherneck had conducted shaping operations to isolate Marjah and secured key lines of communication to support civilian freedom of movement.
Overnight on 12 and 13 February, 1/3/201 Afghan National Army and a Company of 1 Royal Welsh had conducted air insertion into the Chah-e-Anjir Triangle. A Company Group also of 1 Royal Welsh had gone into Western Babaji, and a combined force of ANA and USMC had conducted air assaults against multiple objectives in central Marjah.
There had been simultaneous and corresponding movements on the ground to link up with these air insertions: from the East, Coldstream Guards with 6/2/215 ANA had conducted a ground link-up operation into the Babaji ‘PEAR’; a combined force of 1/3/215 ANA and 1 Grenadier Guards plus Estonian Forces had moved into the Chah-e-Anjir Triangle west of Babaji; and a combined force of ANA and US Marine Corps (USMC) had conducted a ground movement into Northern Marjah.
About the same number of troops had been inserted over ground as by air, with just under 1,000 in each of the major movements.
The theme for UK Forces in the past 24 hours had been consolidation.
Patrols had been sent out into the areas that the original insertions did not cover. There had been successful searches for IEDs and IED components, with the ANA and Royal Welsh finding 13 pressure-plate IEDs in one compound. Such searches were often directed and indicated by the locals.
Forces had been securing secondary objectives, such as securing crossings of canals and chokepoints.
They had also begun initial engineering work, such as bridge-building and rapid Force Protection engineering works at the bases now being established.
Finally, they were providing security for the Shuras (meetings of elders) that were taking place across the area. For example, a Shura had been held at Showal, north west of Chah-e-Anjir, yesterday attended by around 150 locals, with another even larger Shura today.
Maj Gen Messenger said that the ANA had asserted Afghan authority:
“Showall had been the seat of Taliban shadow government in the area. The Taliban flag was taken down and the Afghan National flag was put in its place.”
The air element of the combined operations had been significant, but very stringent requirements were in place before air weapons could be dropped.
Maj Gen Messenger stated:
“There have been no bombs dropped in the UK area of operations, there has been no artillery fired in the UK area of operations, there have been no reports of civilian casualties in the UK area of operations.”
Just one Apache Helicopter Hellfire missile had been fired in the UK area of operations. A Household Cavalry patrol was engaged by insurgents near a compound. The UK Apache helicopter fired warning shots into an open field, as was normal practice, but the insurgents had continued to fire at the patrol and so a Hellfire was used.
Maj Gen Messenger said that the operation was not short of complexity, given the aviation, ground and multinational elements, but that Commanders on the ground were very much of the view that the operation had gone according to plan.
There had been, and remained, very little Taliban interference. There had been small arms attacks from a distance which had tested the patrols, but nothing had stopped the mission from progressing or Shuras from taking place.
The local elders had expressed confidence that this was not simply a ‘mowing the grass’ operation, but that ANA and ISAF were here to stay. The Afghan Government were already forward, making contact and conducting Shuras. Initial interaction was done via the ANA, but Afghan Government representatives from Lashkar Gah had already come forward.
Maj Gen Messenger spoke of the mood of British troops on the ground: “There is no complacency. It is not unusual for the Taliban to melt away and then come back at us once they’ve had time to catch their breath.”
The next stage of the operations would be continued clearance and consolidation, with “hot stabilization” called forward as local conditions permitted.
A number of stabilization projects had already been agreed and were now underway. These would not tip the balance, the Maj Gen Messenger said, but were an important early part of showing ANA/ISAF intent to stay.
The Major General explained that initial planning had thought that the early stages of stablilisation in the UK area would be taken up with compensation claims for damage caused as a result of the operations. But this had proven largely unnecessary, and stabilisation efforts had been accelerated. “Cash for work” projects had already been indentified at local level, and would begin recruiting as early as tomorrow.
Maj Gen Messenger said that early indications were positive on the key objective of winning the support and engagement of the local population:
“[British Task Force Commander] Brigadier James Cowan is very pleased, he had just returned form the Shura when I spoke to him under an hour ago, and he senses genuinely that the population are prepared to give it a go.”
“No-one is saying that the immediate stuff, useful though it is, necessary though it is, is going to be the game-changer. The game-changer is the residual security that is provided there, and continued confidence of the locals that the Afghan Government in the area is going to provide for them.
“Security first, enabling Afghan-led stabilisation over a period of months, that’s the secret.”
The Major General summarised his briefing:
“Everyone understands that what has happened over the last 24-48 hours is the easy bit. The hard bit, the challenge, is the enduring effort, is delivering the security which allows the Afghans to start providing for their people.
“I fully accept that the success of this operation will be judged on that, not on the last 48 hours.”