LONDON (Reuters) - Britain announced the end of a five-week offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan on Monday, saying it had succeeded in driving militants out of population centres ahead of national elections next month.
But hours after commanders announced the successful conclusion of the operation, two more soldiers were killed, bringing the death toll in July to 22, the deadliest month since the war in Afghanistan began in late 2001.
Operation “Panther’s Claw,” which involved around 3,000 British troops backed by U.S., Danish and other NATO units, was the largest offensive by British forces since they took responsibility in mid-2006 for Helmand, a volatile desert-and-mountain province in Afghanistan’s south.
The offensive is part of a series of operations that Western forces have launched ahead of Afghanistan’s presidential and provincial elections on August 20, designed to build security and allow as many people as possible to vote.
But 22 British deaths this month have fuelled doubts at home about the overall war in Afghanistan and whether troops are receiving the support they need from the government.
July has been the bloodiest month of the 7-1/2 conflict for both British and U.S. troops, official casualty figures show.
“What we have achieved here is significant and I am absolutely certain that the operation has been a success,” Brigadier Tim Radford, the commander of British forces in Helmand, told reporters in London via video link.
“We have inflicted heavy losses on the insurgents, both physically and psychologically, and we have seen a number of them give up and flee the area as a result.”
He said around 500 Taliban had confronted British troops during the offensive, which focussed on an area north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where the Taliban had infiltrated a string of towns along the Helmand river.
He would not give details of how many had been captured or killed, but said some Taliban had probably managed to escape or melt back into the local population.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, under fire from opposition politicians and some commanders who say frontline troops lack the equipment they need, praised the operation.
“What we have done is push back the Taliban, and ... start to break that chain of terror that links the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the streets of Britain,” he said.
MORE DEAD THAN IN IRAQ
The campaign began on June 19, since when 23 British troops have died, raising the overall Afghanistan toll to 191, exceeding that in Iraq, where 179 died.
As a result of “Panther’s Claw,” Radford said up to 80,000 more Afghans -- out of a total Helmand population of about 1.3 million and 30 million nationwide -- would now be free to vote. But holding the ground depends on Afghan troops.
Foreign Secretary David Miliband, addressing NATO ambassadors in Brussels, said Afghanistan would require a long-term political solution and that efforts were under way to draw softer elements of the Taliban into the political process.
The aim would be to pull conservative Pashtun nationalists -- from where the Taliban draws its support -- away from the insurgency, “separating those who want Islamic rule locally from those committed to violent jihad globally,” he said.
“Essentially this means a clear route for former insurgents to return to their villages and go back to farming their land, or a role for some of them within the legitimate security forces,” Miliband said, elaborating on a policy that has already been under way for months on the ground.
“For higher-level commanders and their networks, we need to work with the Afghan government to separate the hardline ideologues, who are essentially irreconcilable and violent and who must be pursued relentlessly, from those who can be drawn into domestic political processes ... if they are prepared to be part of a peaceful future and accept the Afghan constitution.”
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Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London and David Brunnstrom in Brussels; Editing by Myra MacDonald
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