Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The scale of the problem

We woke today to the news that Nato forces had embarked on a major operation, codenamed "Operation Achilles", which will eventually involve over 4,500 Nato troops and close to 1,000 Afghani personnel.

Says the ISAF press release, "this is the largest multi-national combined operation launched to date and it signifies the beginning of a planned offensive to bring security to northern Helmand and set the conditions for meaningful development that will fundamentally improve the quality of life for Afghans in the area."

Reuters immediately put two and two together and made five, speculating that this was the expected offensive to recapture the town of Musa Qala, which was taken by the Taliban a month ago. But this was denied by Nato, which said that Achilles was not specifically aimed at regaining the town. In fact, as ISAF itself declares:

Strategically, our goal is to enable the Afghan Government to begin the Kajaki project. This long term initiative is a huge undertaking and the eventual rehabilitation of the Kajaki multi-purpose dam and power house will improve the water supply for local communities, rehabilitate irrigation systems for farmlands and provide sufficient electrical power for residents, industries and commerce.
However, while Nato is talking up the start of an operation, the MoD has been trumpeting its activities in the Kajaki dam area for some months now. In early January, for instance, it was proclaiming: "Marine operation brings hope of electricity to millions in southern Afghanistan", reporting that Royal Marines had began their New Year by clearing villages in the area around Kajaki … enabling work to begin on a major hydroelectric dam.

This was "Operation Clay", started on 1 January, which in February mutated into "Operation Volcano". This gave the MoD, in early February the opportunity to announce that Royal Marines had cleared a Taliban base, consisting of 25 compounds, near the Kajaki hydroelectric dam, "in an effort to help bring stability and power to Afghanistan".

Even then, however, while the media was buying the success story, there were indications that the operation was not going well and that Nato had underestimated the capabilities of the Taliban.

Concern firmed up towards the end of February, when it became evident that individual efforts by Marine formations were being successful, but there were not enough troops on the ground to occupy positions taken. This meant that, after each attack, the Taliban were moving back in.

Now, it seems, what a Company of Marines could not achieve is having to be tackled by a force in excess of 5,000 troops. That says a great deal for the tenacity of our Marines, but it also demonstrates the scale of the problem confronting Nato as it seeks to clear of Taliban a province four times the size of Wales. If this is what it takes to clear but one tiny part, what price the rest?

About this, strangely, both the MoD and the media are, for the moment, silent.

UPDATE: The MoD has confirmed the death of a Royal Marine from 42 Commando, killed when his unit came under fire during while engaged in clearing operations in the Kajaki area. He was not involved in Achilles.

Photos: MoD

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