Brits join the hunt for the Taliban

Sunday Times:

IN the wild, unforgiving terrain of southern Afghanistan, over which people have fought for centuries, the latest players on the battlefield are crack British troops in light, manoeuvrable Land Rovers.

The Pathfinders, an elite unit of 16 Air Assault Brigade, spent five days on a gruelling pursuit of Taliban militants across this rugged landscape, it emerged yesterday. The hunt culminated in their first engagement with the Taliban since 3,300 British troops arrived in Helmand province.

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Their dash through the mountains began on May 17, when they were unexpectedly summoned to the rescue.

A poorly trained police force of 100 in the town of Musa Qala had been cornered by a much greater force of Taliban fighters. “They said there were 500 Taliban, but I am not sure how accurate that is,” said a British source. Already 13 policemen had been shot dead. They needed help, and quickly.

Travelling down roads that are often little more than rutted gravel tracks, it was a white-knuckle ride. Often the dried out riverbeds or wadis made an easier route. The threat of ambush slowed things further: despite being far more rigorously trained than the Taliban, the British soldiers were well aware that their enemy knew the terrain a lot better. The 30 Pathfinders also knew they were greatly outnumbered.

By dawn on Friday, May 19, they were perched high above Musa Qala with a good view of policemen storming out of the town in Toyota pick-up trucks — the standard vehicle for Afghan fighters, whichever side they are fighting on.

The tables had turned. Driven by a desire to avenge their heavy casualties and aided by reinforcements from other parts of the province, the police had seized the advantage. A long line of their vehicles was snaking up the valley in pursuit of the Taliban.

The British tagged on to the end of this extraordinary convoy. They were soon deep in enemy territory, a land where very few, if any, coalition troops had ever set foot. This was where Mullah Omar, the fugitive one-eyed Taliban leader, was reported to have fled after American military might put paid to his eccentric medieval regime in late 2001.

With temperatures pushing 50C and the threat of ambush growing ever greater, it became an even more uncomfortable journey.

When the Pathfinders reached the outskirts of a town called Baghran in the mountainous far north of the province on Saturday the sound of gunfire greeted them: the police had resumed contact with Taliban fighters on the fringes of the town. For the moment, however, they seemed unwilling to push forward.

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There is much more. The aggressiveness of the Afghan police is interesting as well as the coordination among the NATO forces doing the fighting in Afghanistan. It looks like our allies have joined the battle in that country and the Taliban are taking a beating.

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