Gordon Brown has declared a victory in the “first phase” of an offensive by British and US troops in Helmand, Afghanistan.
Yet the declaration hides deep uncertainty over the operation, known as Panther’s Claw, and the bloody cost of setting up a string of bases in the restive province—known as “phase two”.
Brigadier Tim Radford announced that the operation was a “success”.
“We’ve had a significant impact on the Taliban in this area—both in terms of their capability and their morale,” he told the BBC.
Brown says that “providing security” in Afghanistan is crucial to preventing “terrorist attacks” at home.
But this justification is wearing thin as even supporters of the war have noted that the operation is not targeting Al Qaida but attempting to shore up the failing Afghan government.
The strategic intention of the operation was to sweep through Helmand province and trap the Taliban by blocking their escape routes. The mission’s success seems to have been limited.
One local shopkeeper told a New York Times reporter, “They all escaped.”
A US commander admitted that insurgents had slipped away. He told the same reporter, “I wish we had trapped a few more folks.”
As with previous offensives the insurgents melted away, then regrouped to strike back at any troops left behind or to ambush resupply convoys.
Insurgents have adapted their tactics to encircle and trap advancing soldiers while preparing complex ambushes involving roadside bombs.
The majority of the troops who died in the offensive were killed by these roadside bombs.
The occupiers hoped that Panther’s Claw would induce a “middle tier” of “moderate Taliban” to recognise the rule of Afghan government, and therefore of the occupation, in return for control of their areas.
The second aim of the operation was to silence criticism about the war at home. But the increase in casualties has exposed the limitations of British and US forces.
Complaints that British troops are under-equipped and under- resourced have embroiled the government in a scandal over the lack of helicopters.
But US troops, who are better armed and equipped, have suffered a higher casualty rate.
More helicopters simply means that the troops are used more and exposed to greater danger.
Many troops will be left behind as part of the “clear and hold” strategy.
This phase involves setting up a string of bases across the province. It will expose troops to guerrilla style hit and run tactics and road side bombs.
Far from stabilising Afghanistan, the offensive will sink the occupation further into the quagmire.