The plan was
simple: with overwhelming force, the British soldiers would arrive
in Babaji – one of the most dangerous insurgent strongholds
in southern Afghanistan – and scare away the local Taliban without
a fight, leaving a permanent military presence in the area for the
first time, winning over local people and persuading them to stand
up to their Taliban masters.
Panchai Palang (Panther’s Claw) – the biggest air assault mounted
by British troops since 2001, involving hundreds of soldiers being
dropped from Chinooks – did not go quite according to plan.
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Boone on Operation Panther’s Claw
to this audio
The aim was
to claim a lawless part of Afghanistan’s troublesome south for the
distant and disliked government far away in Kabul. They would seize
the area, put up fortifications to limit movement and impose some
order and authority.
the strict secrecy that cloaked the operation, the local people
seemed to have got wind of it and – scared by the prospect
of intense fighting – voted with their feet.
The day before
the soldiers began their operation, drones monitoring the area showed
people evacuating their homes, leaving Babaji in the hands of militants.
first three days of their two-week stay in the area, which will
end when troops from the Welsh Guards relieve them, the men of the
Black Watch battalion endured persistent attacks of small arms fire
and rocket-propelled grenades. With the enemy hiding at a distance,
in bushes and abandoned compounds, most soldiers never saw their
foes. Only the snipers and the men monitoring the live video feeds
from circling drones got sight of their quarry.
are so well camouflaged you can’t see anything," said Rob Colquoun,
a section leader, in charge of a team of snipers who killed 18 Afghans
in one afternoon.
had also laid a number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in
advance of the troops’ arrival, often marked rather obviously by
piles of rocks as a warning to local people. As a result, patrols
were forced to move at the pace of a soldier waving a metal detector
back and forth. Some protection was afforded by the vehicles used
to scoot around the battlefield, including Vikings – sauna-like
metal boxes on caterpillar tracks whose fetid interiors made the
heat of high noon in Helmand feel like a refreshing breeze.
is nothing worse for soldiers’ morale than suffering casualties
without being able to inflict them on the enemy," said Major
Al Steele, the commander of B Company.
The night before
the Black Watch set off, the troops watched a gut-wrenchingly moving
photographic tribute to a young private killed on 12 June, killed
by an IED that was placed in a position the insurgents guessed a
soldier would rush into when under fire.
projected on to a huge screen on the wall in the battalion’s Camp
Gordon headquarters, featured pictures of Robert McLaren in the
field, and of the repatriation of his union flag-draped coffin back
images seared on their brains, the men, weighed down with weapons,
ammunition and the rations that would sustain them for the coming
24 hours, wolfed down a meal of greasy hamburger and chips before
clambering aboard the Chinooks that would take them for the seven-minute
hop to Babaji. Served up amid the dust of the Afghan desert, it
was the last cooked meal most of the soldiers would have for 11
With the normal
seats stowed away, the Jocks – as the men are known –
arranged themselves on the floors of the helicopters, legs tucked
around the man in front of them and the bulky rifles, rocket launchers,
radios and other kit.
As the powerful
engines gathered speed, the eerie green cabin lights were cut –
leaving them in darkness, save for the occasional flash of anti-missile
flares detonated from the side of the helicopters – and the
Chinooks headed away from Bastion, the vast British base in Helmand,
for the heart of green zone, the irrigated farmland that is home
to swaths of poppy fields and large numbers of Taliban insurgents.