Britain announced the end of its five-week Operation Panther's Claw in southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province on Tuesday, July 28, claiming to have seriously fragmented the Taliban in its vital stronghold and purged strategic areas.
The operation was launched ahead of – and as backup for – the large-scale US-Afghan offensive taking place a few kilometers away to the south of Helmand's provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
Deputy Chief of the British Defense Staff Lt. Gen. Simon Mayall summed up the operation's achievements:
“It gives the Taliban 'second tier' room to reconnect with the government and this is absolutely at the heart of this operation,” he said.
British sources explained that the insurgency's 'second tier' is regarded as critical because it consists of the field commanders who control the Taliban's fighting strength in Pashtun-dominated southern Afghanistan, whereas the 'first tier' – Mullah Omar's hard-line circle – are firmly resistant to talks or “reconnecting” with anyone.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources, however, the Taliban show no indication of being divided into these 'tiers.” Nor do their field commanders in Helmand appear to be in any mood for engaging in talks with the British or falling in behind the words of British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who said in a speech to NATO in Brussels Monday July 27:
“We need to help the Afghan government exploit the opportunity, with a more coherent effort to fragment the various elements of the insurgency, and turn those who can be reconciled to live within the Afghan constitution.”
A useful exit formula for London
The fragmentation formula worked well as a viable exit strategy for ending the British operation – not only in the Miliband speech to NATO, but also for Taliban, which saw it as a useful British pretext for terminating a failed operation.
Taliban planners viewed with contempt the UK forces' inability to sustain casualties – 10 fatalities in the operation – 20 in July for its Afghanistan campaign – when the insurgents were eager to sacrifice dozens of fighters in a single assault or an American bombing. They took it to mean that the British had lost their will to fight in Afghanistan, finding confirmation in a new UK opinion poll, which showed 56 percent do not believe Taliban can be defeated and would prefer their government to withdraw all its forces from Afghanistan without delay.
Taliban commanders, – national and local – are therefore claiming the British operation gave them a major achievement. For the first time in the eight-year war, they believe they have forced America's senior ally in the campaign to fold and back off from their most concerted effort to date to turn the tide of the insurgency in a key Taliban bastion.
By withdrawing now, the insurgents feel the British have given up on their bid to dislodge their fighters from the banks of the strategic Helmand River or push them east and south into Pakistan. The balance of strength is now tilted acutely in the Taliban's favor: Instead of facing 8,000 enemy fighters – 4,000 US Marines, 1,000 Afghans and 3,000 Britons – they now have to contend with only 5,000 US-Afghan fighting men.
The Taliban see an analogy in the British military pattern of conduct in southern Iraq.
In September 2005, Shiite insurgents engaged British forces in battle in Basra, setting a number of British tanks on fire and capturing a group of special forces personnel. From that time on, the UK began to prepare its retreat from Iraq.
Fresh reinforcements, courtesy of the enemy
For the US-Afghan Operation Strike of the Sword in the same province, the British withdrawal from Helmand is undoubtedly a setback. British troops based north of Lashkar Gah were entrusted with driving the Taliban away from the strategic river and so denying them the use of their main conduit for supplies and reinforcements. Now the insurgents are free to use the river for fresh supplies and troops, so adding to the pressure on US Marine and Afghan forces.
On the other side of the border, the Pakistani army's triumphant announcement that the battle for the northwestern Swat Valley had ended in its victory and the two million refugees were free to return was more of the same.
The facts, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly military sources, are that, far from being driven out, large Taliban contingents are still fighting – particularly in the Matta and Kabal regions of Swat, not far from the capital, Mingora, and Taliban still controls most of the main road links to the towns in the valley.
The Pakistani army has not managed to wipe out a single Taliban stronghold. Nor have any military chiefs been killed or captured.
According to our military sources, the worst of the fighting is still to come.
It is therefore not surprising that the Pakistani military declined a request by Barack Obama's special envoy to Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, to visit Mingora last week. First, Islamabad needs to set up the props for convincing the Americans that the Pakistani army won its critical battle for loosening the Taliban's stranglehold on the Swat Valley.
To this end, the Pakistani authorities are pushing hundreds of thousands of refugees back to their Swat Valley homes. The estimated half million who have made it, found their homes in ruins with water and electricity, food and medical supplies restricted to the city centers. There are no services at all in rural areas.
But that is just one chapter in the Swat Valley's savage saga.
When four months ago Islamabad ordered civilians to leave the embattled region ahead of its campaign, Taliban fighters and their families were told to join the exodus as civilians and take advantage of the US-supplied food rations and medical care offered in the refugee camps.
They are returning now to the valley, refreshed and ready to inject new strength into the Taliban's next onslaught for retaining its grip on the Swat Valley.