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.
Tragic loss 'not in vain'
"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 of 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.
Roadside bombs deadly for soldiers
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.
Projects for new roads, schools
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 has 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.