Operation Panchai Palang, or Panther's Claw, was a British-led military operation of the Afghan War in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan. It aimed to secure various canal and river crossings to establish a permanent International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) presence in the area. The commander of the operation declared the first stage a success on 27 July 2009.
Soon after the Taliban insurgency took root in Afghanistan large tracts of Helmand Province came under Taliban control. Of all of Afghanistan's provinces, Helmand "has been the most difficult" for coalition forces, according to BBC News foreign correspondent Ian Pannell, and holds the largest Taliban presence.
British forces deployed to Helmand in 2006, formally assuming responsibility for security in the province from US forces on 1 May 2006. In Helmand, described as "the centre of the Taliban insurgency", they faced heavy combat and regular attacks by Taliban fighters.
According to Pannell, the "latest figures" show that more than 10 attacks took place each day in Helmand Province as of July 2009, and most of the nearly 170 British forces fatalities in Afghanistan since 2001 prior to Panther's Claw were caused by the Taliban in Helmand.
Panther's Claw was preceded by several other operations carried out by British and Afghan government forces with the purpose of "taking and holding ground" in Helmand Province.
Operation Zafar, launched on 27 April, lasted one week and involved more than 200 troops of the Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police, supported by elements of the Mercian Regiment and The Royal Gurkha Rifles, respectively. The operation succeeded in clearing the Taliban from several villages around Basharan in central Helmand, killing "many Taliban insurgents" according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) at a cost of only "handful" of ANA and British casualties.
Zafar 2, launched on 19 May, and lasting four days, saw British troops deployed to secure an area so that a checkpoint—to be manned by Afghan forces—could be built on a key route into the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. On 29 May, soldiers from the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers engaged and drove out Taliban fighters near the village of Yatimchay, south of Musa Qala.
Lt Col Nick Richardson, spokesman for Task Force Helmand, cred the arrival of additional American forces in Helmand with increasing the operational capability of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) forces in the province and helping to open the way for Panther's Claw.
Panther's Claw was launched around midnight on 19 June 2009a with the stated aim of securing control of various canal and river crossings and establishing a lasting ISAF presence in an area described by Lt Col Richardson as "one of the main Taliban strongholds" ahead of the 2009 Afghan presidential election.
In what the Ministry of Defence described as "one of the largest air operations in modern times", according to BBC News, more than 350 troops from The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (3 SCOTS),(2 Rifles) transported by twelve Chinook helicopters, deployed into Bābājī Faşal, northwest of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, in Helmand Province. The operation, which involved thirteen other aircraft—including Apache and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, Harriers, unmanned aerial vehicles, and an AC-130H Spectre gunship—involved both British and American air power, and was supported by more than 150 ground forces from the Black Watch and Royal Engineers.
Taliban fighters in the area launched multiple attacks against British forces, all of which were repelled, and 3 SCOTS secured three key crossings—the Lui Mandey Wadi crossing, the Nahr e-Burgha canal and the Shamalan canal—by 23 June. To restrict movement by Taliban forces, British troops also constructed several checkpoints to be manned by 3 SCOTS but eventually ceded to the Afghan National Police.
According to Lt Col Stephen Cartwright, Commanding Officer of the Black Watch, 3 SCOTS established a "firm foothold" in the area of the operation despite encountering resistance. Lt Col Richardson reported that British forces killed several insurgents during the course of the operation, which was dubbed the "Battle of Babaji" by a number of news media outlets.
On 23 June, the MoD reported that British troops involved in Panther's Claw discovered 1.3 tonnes of poppy seed the day before, as well as improvised explosive devices (IEDs)—which they disabled—and anti-personnel land mines. Analysis of a sample of the crop by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Kabul, however, revealed the haul to be of mung beans.
On 25 June, the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, pushed up Shamalan canal securing 14 more crossing points, cutting off the insurgents' supply route and thus preventing more Taliban fighters coming into the Babaji area.
In the third phase of Panther's Claw, more than 700 British soldiers from the Light Dragoons and 2nd Battalion, Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters) supported by soldiers of the Danish Battle Group, launched a ground offensive, backed by fire support, against Taliban-held areas north of Lashkar Gah. The assault was timed to coincide with Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword, launched on 2 July, by American forces against Taliban strongholds in the Helmand River valley.
The BBC reported that British troops had by 3 July, "taken some key towns", but that their progress was impeded by insufficient resources. By 4 July, British forces had encountered "little resistance" —in contrast to American and Afghan forces to the south participating in Khanjar who were engaged in "fierce" fighting against the Taliban. As of 5 July, around 3,000 Task Force Helmand troops from the United Kingdom, Denmark, Estonia, and Afghan government forces were involved in Panther's Claw, with the British MoD reporting close quarters combat with Taliban fighters.
On 5 July, Danish Daily Politiken reported that between 55-65 soldiers or nearly half the corps, of the Danish Special Forces unit Jægerkorpset had been deployed in the operation, with the primary objective to aid regulars of the Danish Army secure 13 bridges over a major irrigation canal in the area. It's one of the largest known deployments of Danish special forces on foreign soil, and the largest since 2002.
After declaring the first stage of the operation a success on 27 July 2009, UK forces commenced the second stage - which focused on holding ground won from the Taliban in previous weeks.
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