British forces in Afghanistan are preparing for what is expected to be their largest offensive since Operation Panther’s Claw in a bid to push Taliban fighters out of the hotly-contested area of Nad-e-Ali.
The Spring offensive is aimed at occupying parts of Helmand Province where coalition forces have previously not had a significant presence, and forms part of Nato General Stanley McChrystal’s new strategy of protecting population centres from insurgents.
It will involve around 1,000 British troops – likely to involve a combination of Grenadier Guards and members of the Welsh Guards who recently accounted for the 500-strong Christmas surge – and will focus on the area to the west of Nad-e-Ali
An additional 2,500 US troops will take part in the operation, along with some 3,000 members of the Afghan National Army.
According to Lieutenant General Sir Nick Parker, the deputy Nato commander in Afghanistan, the mission will demonstrate the new strategy of “shape, clear, hold, build” – filling the spaces won with a considerable space presence to prevent the return of insurgents.
“The key to this approach is having adequate force density in terms of coalition forces but more importantly, in terms of Afghan forces,” he said.
Ahead of the operation, there will be a charm offensive spearheaded by Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand and a key British ally in tackling the drug trade in the province.
“It will very much be demonstrated to the people in these ungoverned spaces that they will get improved security, government and development,” he said.
However, the Government’s new Afghanistan spokesman Major General Gordon Messenger, the former commanding officer of 3 Commando Brigade, conceded there would be battles ahead.
“We will be moving into areas where our influence has not been strong in the past and that will inevitably generate a reaction,” he said.
But he insisted that, in line with Gen McCrystal’s new strategy, this time British forces would not automatically be seeking a fight.
“Whether or not there is the same reaction as Panther’s Claw remains to be seen but we have learned the lessons of that conflict,” he said.
“It’s not a case of us being up for a fight.. we will do it in the least aggressive way possible. It’s about securing the area and remaining in the area.”