UK's Military Calls Afghan Operation a Success

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown declared Monday that a mission to oust Taliban fighters from an Afghan stronghold has been a major success, despite a mounting death toll and public skepticism over the merits of the campaign.

Defense officials confirmed that the five-week major military
phase of the mission called Operation Panther's Claw was completed
over the weekend. It captured a key corridor of land in
Afghanistan's southern Helmand province.

Panther's Claw began days before a complementary operation by
4,000 U.S. Marines, who moved into the southern half of Helmand to
clear insurgent strongholds and disrupt militant supply lines
running north from Pakistan before next month's elections.

Brig. Tim Radford, commander of Britain's 9,000 troops in
Afghanistan, told reporters that almost all of an estimated 500
Taliban fighters in the area had fled, laid down their weapons or
been killed.

"The efforts of our troops in Helmand have been nothing short
of heroic," Brown said. "There has been a tragic human cost. But
this has not been in vain.

Defense officials say 11 British soldiers and three civilians
have died amid the fierce fighting to clear insurgents from a
region between Helmand's political center, Lashkar Gah, and trading
hub, Gereshk - home to about 80,000 people.

One soldier from the Light Dragoons was killed Monday by an
explosion during a vehicle patrol in central Helmand province as
part of the operation, officials said. Britain's Ministry of
Defense said the soldier was taking part in the operation's second
phase focused on holding onto territory and rebuilding.

A British soldier from the 5th Regiment Royal Artillery was
killed by an explosion Monday while on a foot patrol in Sangin
District in Helmand. He was not taking part in Operation Panther's
Claw. Britain's Ministry of Defense said families of both soldiers
killed Monday have been informed.

Troops uncovered about 270 roadside bombs laid to halt their
advance, and one battlegroup was involved in a five-day battle in
Spin Masjid, an area in central Helmand which has hosted Taliban
bases.

"You look into the eyes of some of the soldiers and they have
clearly grown up on this operation, " Radford told reporters in
London via a video link from Helmand.

A total of 22 U.K. soldiers have died in July - many as the
result of roadside bombs, and about half of them on missions other
than Panther's Claw - raising new questions among the British
people about the cost of the eight-year military campaign. Since
2001, 191 British service personnel have died in Afghanistan.

Brown insists the mission is vital to ensure Afghanistan never
again harbors international terrorists, including al-Qaida, and to
tackle the heroin trade.

"What we've done is push back the Taliban - and what we've done
also is to start to break that chain of terror that links the
mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain,"
Brown said.

A poll published earlier this month showed that support for the
war in Britain has increased. The ICM Research survey published in
The Guardian newspaper showed 47 percent of the public supports the
war in Afghanistan and 46 percent oppose it. The pollster said
support was 15 percentage points higher than in 2006. ICM
interviewed 1,000 adults by telephone and the margin of error was
plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Radford said 3,000 British, Danish, Estonian and Afghan troops
joined the latest operation, aimed at securing the region before an
election slated for August. 20.

"It has been significant; the Taliban have had severe
casualties. We know from reports that it has affected their
capability significantly. It has affected their morale
significantly," Radford said, though he declined to specify how
many Taliban fighters were killed.

Troops will remain in the area to hold the land captured, and
development officials said projects aimed at building new roads,
schools and health centers have begun - some as quickly as 48 hours
after fighting concluded.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband urged the Afghan
government to exploit the military success to reconcile with
moderate Taliban guerrillas.

In a speech at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium,
Miliband said that while hard-line fundamentalists committed to
global terrorism must be pursued relentlessly, the rank-and-file
Taliban should be given the opportunity "to leave the path of
confrontation with the government."

"Essentially, this means a clear route for former insurgents to
return to their villages and go back to farming the land, or a role
for some of them within the legitimate Afghan security forces,"
Miliband said.

"For higher level commanders and their networks, we need to
work with the Afghan government to separate the hard-line
ideologues, who are essentially irreconcilable and violent, and who
must be pursued relentlessly, from those who can be drawn into
domestic political processes," he added.


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