British forces from all three Services have supported hundreds of Afghan soldiers in carrying out a major operation to clear insurgents from one of their last remaining strongholds in central Helmand.
Operation OMID HAFT was planned and executed by the Afghan National Army (ANA), partnered by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops, and has seen them battle in harsh and hostile terrain where the enemy have intimidated and threatened the Afghan population for many years.
During the operation, Lieutenant Oliver Richard Augustin and Marine Samuel Giles William Alexander MC, both from Juliet Company, 42 Commando Royal Marines, lost their lives, but, despite their deaths, the fight to defeat the insurgent and help secure a stable future for the people of Afghanistan has continued.
Commander Task Force Helmand, Brigadier Ed Davis, said:
OMID HAFT is the latest in a series of Afghan Army-led operations to remove the insurgent as an evil force in the daily lives of the people of Nahr-e Saraj. For several weeks now, the combined Afghan and ISAF force has shown great courage and resolve in clearing one of the most dangerous areas in central Helmand.
Much hard work remains to be done; however, as the operation draws to a close, the people of Nahr-e Saraj are one step closer to a life free from insurgents. I salute the supreme professionalism and unfailing bravery of the Afghan and ISAF heroes whose sacrifice has made this possible.
The planning for OMID HAFT began several weeks ago. Since then, elements of Task Force Helmand built around 3 Commando Brigade have been working closely with the 6th Kandak (Battalion) of the Afghan Army’s 3/215 Brigade to co-ordinate an operation to rid the Kopak, Malgir and Loy Mandeh areas of Nahr-e Saraj of insurgent activity and extend the safe, protected community up to the Nahr-e Bughra canal.
Forty-eight hours before the operation began, and as the final plans were being put in place, Royal Marines from J Company, 42 Commando, alongside soldiers from the ANA, deployed onto the ground south of Loy Mandeh Kalay.
They were warmly received by locals, who are keen to rid the area of the insurgents that have forced them from their homes. The Royal Marines’ aim was to create a diversion, drawing the enemy away from Malgir - the main focus of the operation.
In the early hours of 26 May, nearly 300 ANA soldiers and Riflemen from 1st Battalion The Rifles (1 RIFLES) took part in one of the largest partnered air assaults in Afghanistan since operations began.
Colonel Peter Eadie is the Commander of the UK Joint Aviation Group who co-ordinated the helicopters:
This was a complex operation involving large numbers of Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force personnel as well as US Marine Corps troops. Between them, they co-ordinated 22 aircraft which inserted hundreds of troops and tonnes of stores into a high threat area, in poor weather, at night. Days of detailed planning paid off as the mission was a resounding success and a textbook example of multinational co-operation.
To protect the helicopters and troops, members of the Afghan Artillery, partnered with Gunners from 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery, provided illumination rounds to seek out any insurgents who might be lying in wait in the darkness.
Once on the ground, the soldiers and Riflemen moved towards Malgir, and, by 0900hrs, had secured several checkpoints (CPs) and a number of crossings over the Nahr-e Bughra canal. At the same time, a further 200 troops, including 130 ANA, moved into position on foot to conduct a clearance operation along the canal.
The ANA-led clearance was met with little resistance. Afghan and British Engineers supporting the 1 RIFLES Battle Group were able to quickly clear Route Trident to enable essential supplies to be delivered to the CPs. By the end of day one, five new checkpoints had been established and a cordon put in place around Malgir.
The Chief of Staff and Second-in-Command of 1 RIFLES, Major Jonny Kitson, said:
The operation has gone well and this has been thanks to the meticulous planning carried out by the Afghan and British teams working side by side, as well as joint mission rehearsals by the combat elements.
We have a built up an excellent working relationship with our Afghan National Army and Police partners which is taking the fight to the enemy and generating confidence within local communities.
With hundreds of soldiers and Royal Marines deployed out on the ground in hostile territory, the Close Support Logistic Regiment (CSLR) had the huge task of distributing almost 60 tonnes of supplies into the Loy Mandeh area by road and air.
Sappers from 31 Armoured Engineer Squadron led the initial, rapid and successful clearance of Route Neptune, a key road passing through the contested districts. They were closely followed by a team from 39 Armoured Engineer Squadron, who upgraded the route, filling in holes and repairing the road surface.
That cleared the way for the CSLR trucks carrying ammunition, radios and batteries, as well as water, food, stores and equipment, to move to locations across the area to ensure those on the ground could not only be self-sufficient but also defend themselves.
In order to protect the hundreds of troops operating on the ground, Y Squadron, 30 Commando Information Exploitation Group Royal Marines, provided various intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) assets which enabled commanders to make tactical decisions armed with an accurate picture of what was going on across the area.
With the operation fully underway, 42 Commando turned towards the insurgent-held village of Loy Mandeh. A once thriving centre of commerce, it has become a desolate and uninhabitable area due to insurgent intimidation and the numbers of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) lying in wait.
The mission for J Company was to enter the area from the west, clear out the insurgents, and then prevent them from coming back by erecting CPs in the newly-liberated village. The biggest challenge facing the men was the number of IEDs. Several devices were found and safely disposed of by members of the Counter-IED Task Force and their Afghan counterparts.
Captain Vivek Jassal, Royal Engineers, from the C-IED Task Force, said:
Although the clearance of IEDs within Loy Mandeh village was a huge undertaking, much of it was facilitated by the ANA. The warriors themselves have found at least six devices within the village.
On the afternoon of 27 May, an IED exploded inside a compound which J Company were searching. A Medical Emergency Response Team helicopter was immediately dispatched to the scene to treat those caught up in the blast. Tragically, two members of J Company, Lieutenant Ollie Augustin and Marine Sam Alexander, died from injuries sustained in the explosion.
Despite the deaths of two of their men and injuries to several others, J Company bravely continued with their mission and for several hours fought off heavy insurgent fire and attacks.
Lieutenant Colonel Ewen Murchison is the Commanding Officer of 42 Commando:
Two of our finest men have made the ultimate sacrifice, selflessly giving their lives in the service of their country and for the good of the Afghan people,” he said. “They lived and fought alongside one another and our lives are much worse for them not being here. Tragic as this event is, 42 Commando stand resolute and focused on the task in hand, undeterred. That’s what Ollie and Sam would have wanted.
With J Company involved in heavy fighting in the west, Lima Company, 42 Commando, and their Afghan partners pushed forward into Loy Mandeh Kalay from the east.
Once in the village, Officer Commanding, Major Alec Burrell, and his team identified compounds which could be used as locations for new security checkpoints. Specialist teams of Royal Engineers were called in to clear the compounds of IEDs so an ANA and ISAF presence could be quickly established before the insurgents had time to return.
Corporal Michael McConnel, RAF Police, is one of a number of dog handlers who took part in the operation. He said:
During one patrol, one of the lads partly initiated an IED. After he was taken to hospital, Memphis and I carried on patrolling - we had to make sure the route from the new CP site was clear to get the essential stores needed to build it. It felt good to bring security to the people in the area.
Commander Task Force Helmand Engineer Group, Lieutenant Colonel Leigh Tingey, Royal Engineers, said:
The ANA and ISAF engineer contribution has been significant and is progressing as planned. The ANA Engineer Tolay continue to build vehicle checkpoints along Route Neptune adjacent to the Nahr-e Bughra canal, while work by ISAF Engineers is focused on the construction of temporary checkpoints and the clearance of IEDs from major routes.
All this engineer effort is playing a key role in bringing security and freedom of movement to the people of Loy Mandeh, Malgir and Kopak.
Two CPs have now been established in Loy Mandeh Kalay - the first of many - which will provide security for locals and prevent the insurgents from returning.
In order to get a sense of feeling from locals, L Company sent a patrol deep into the village. It was the first ISAF patrol conducted in the area for many years. Major Burrell led the patrol:
We followed the road along the Nahr-e Bughra canal, constantly on the lookout for IEDs or booby traps,” he said. “As we reached the outskirts of the village, a local man met us and agreed to escort us into the centre to meet with the local elders.
We held a shura with the mullah and explained to them what we were hoping to achieve. They were extremely welcoming to the ANA and the Royal Marines and I am confident the Afghan Army will develop positive relationships with the community.
Operation OMID HAFT has involved force elements from right across Task Force Helmand. Soldiers from 4th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland (4 SCOTS) moved from their bases in Lashkar Gah district to assist with the operation. A Company, 4 SCOTS, pushed into 42 Commando’s area to support the Royal Marines.
The soldiers carried out a number of patrols to deny the insurgents freedom of movement and provide security for the local people. B Company’s role was to provide support to 1 RIFLES by observing any potential insurgent crossing points over the Helmand River and searching compounds believed to be used by the enemy.
For 36 hours they conducted patrols with the Afghan Uniformed Police across a wide area, helping to gather intelligence to feed back to the battle group.
While 4 SCOTS operated on foot, D Squadron, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (SCOTS DG), provided protection in their armoured Warthog vehicles. Together with a troop of 9th/12th Royal Lancers from the Brigade Reconnaissance Force, the SCOTS DG targeted compounds in an area rife with insurgents, providing a ring of steel within which the troops could carry out searches.
On Saturday, just two days after the Afghan and ISAF troops entered the contested areas, Afghan Major Rahim Ali visited ANA warriors who had just taken down a large Taliban propaganda flag from the outskirts of Loy Mandeh Kalay. The flag was replaced with an Afghan flag to indicate to the local population the return of the Government of Afghanistan to the area.
The ANA and ISAF are confident the increase in security provided by Operation OMID HAFT will encourage local civilians to return to their homes in the village. With Afghan and ISAF checkpoints along the key road through the area, locals now have more freedom of movement and it’s hoped the once thriving Loy Mandeh bazaar will reopen within weeks.
Lieutenant Colonel Giles Woodhouse is the Commanding Officer of the Brigade Advisory Group which has been mentoring the ANA through the planning and execution of the operation:
The initial stages of OMID HAFT have been very successful and Commander 3/215 is very pleased by the progress made by his troops and supporting ISAF soldiers,” he said. “The ANA have seized control of the vital crossings of the Nahr-e Bughra canal and the lateral route that runs alongside it, denying the insurgent freedom of manoeuvre into the Green Zone.
Other warriors have cleared through Malgir and Kopak without meeting insurgent resistance and their presence has been welcomed by the local nationals. Further clearance operations are planned in the coming days to prepare for the District Governor to conduct shuras in the newly-cleared areas of Nahr-e Saraj district.