Page last updated at 02:18 GMT, Sunday, 28 February 2010

Afghan mission 'gone well' but real battle to come

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC defence correspondent in Camp Bastion, Afghanistan


Sir Jock Stirrup said the first phase of the operation had "gone really well"

On a visit to Helmand, the head of the armed forces has said that British troops have performed superbly in Operation Moshtarak, and that the initial phase has gone well.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup was speaking as he flew in to Showal, formerly the heartland of the Taliban's shadow government.

He said there were still pockets of resistance further south in Marjah, where the Americans have been fighting, and some resistance in Nad Ali, but that levels had eased considerably over the last few days.

Security was tight for Sir Jock's visit.

In the skies, an Apache attack helicopter was visible as it circled above, while soldiers from the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh kept watch as the head of the armed forces came to talk to British and Afghan forces involved in Operation Moshtarak.

Speaking at a patrol base in the town, which appeared relatively quiet, he thanked British and Afghan forces for their work.

"Op Moshtarak is just the initial phase, and the clear phase went extraordinarily well, and it was a professionally-executed operation that went very smoothly. Our forces performed superbly."

However, he told the BBC that the coalition was not complacent.

"This is a tough fight, and it is a hard campaign, and you have got some pretty determined and quite clever opponents. They have a vote in this, and we have to be able to react to that, to enable us to keep them on the back foot," he said.

'Test the ground'

Just two weeks ago, the Taliban flag flew over this town; as the coalition moved in, it was replaced with the Afghan national flag that now flies from a tall white crane, visible from the low reinforced mud walled compounds that surround it.

The impression was of people waiting warily, wondering which side it will prove safest to support

However, soldiers here say that although many of the insurgents melted away after 4,000 coalition and Afghan troops launched the overall operation - 1,200 of them dropped in by air on D-Day - many insurgents remained to watch and test the ground.

Three British soldiers died during the "clear" phase of the operation.

Outside the military compound in Showal, young men from the town sit on the riverbank.

Some covered their faces as we passed; a few of the younger children smiled.

But the impression was of people waiting warily, wondering which side it will prove safest to support.

Last week, insurgents managed to place an IED makeshift bomb beneath a British truck, 20 yards from the crane. Nobody was hurt; only part of the charge went off.

"The Taliban haven't left - they're always looking for weaknesses, and they'll come back when they get the manpower again. But we're prepared for that," says Fusilier Dave Rollings, 24, from Cardiff, of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh.

Cpl Spiros Parry, 28, from Penygroes in Wales, agrees.

"It wasn't as heavy as we thought it would be, but it's still been eventful. Everyone's aware of the threat from IEDs, but the boys are doing well finding them, and the teams have cleared the routes for the convoys. So far, so good."


British soldier in Operation Moshtarak
Some 4,000 British personnel have been involved in the offensive

More than 2,000 Afghans in the area covered by Operation Moshtarak have signed up for "cash for work" schemes.

They represent one method that the coalition and the Afghan government hope will wean some of the younger and less ideologically-driven Taliban fighters to lay down their arms.

An Afghan National Army colonel was cautious today about signs of Taliban fighters being "reconciled" with the Afghan government, but many hope the momentum generated by this operation will speed that possibility.

At the patrol base, Maj Shon Hackney, of the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh, is optimistic.

"It's been very positive so far, and local people were keen to see us, although wary about where the Taliban were. Slowly, they are beginning to trust us and the Afghan National Army."

He admits that the threat from roadside bombs remains high.

"We have found three IED factories in Showal, and we've witnessed attempts by the Taliban to attack us and intimidate the locals. But there are visible signs of normality returning."

In the two weeks of this operation, the British counter-IED task force led by Col Gareth Bex has dealt with and recovered 40 roadside bombs in situ, and destroyed more than 80 items of unexploded ordnance.

Other finds have included 300 components for making IEDs, recovered from caches or bomb factories, including pressure plates and main charges that could be used to kill and maim.

'Hearts and minds'

What we were after was an operation that was not about fighting the enemy, but about winning the people
Brigadier James Cowan
Commander of Task Force Helmand

The sheer scale of the threat remains hard to tackle, even with sophisticated surveillance in the skies above and troops with metal detectors on the ground.

Overall, though, British forces are quietly pleased with the way the operation has gone so far.

Brigadier James Cowan, the overall commander of Task Force Helmand, accompanied the Chief of the Defence Staff as he visited British forces across Helmand.

"What we were after was an operation that was not about fighting the enemy, but about winning the people.

"And in some ways, I suppose it's been a bit of an anti-climax, but that is exactly what we planned for: for it to be anti-climactic, so that we could come in with enough troops to make sure there wasn't a fight at all," he says. "I think that is what we've achieved."

Both sides, though, know that the real battle will be less for the physical territory than the hearts and minds of the people of Showal and the surrounding areas.

The Afghan government and its local representatives will have to deliver on their promises of better governance and less corruption.

While reconstruction will need to be faster than it has been in the past if local people are to be persuaded to throw in their lot with Kabul - and resist the Taliban's return.

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