Babaji A fight for hearts and minds but the people have gone

Battle of Babaji: A fight for hearts and minds in Afghanistan, but none are to be found

Jon Boone, Wednesday 24 June 2009 21.45 BST

Soldiers from the Black Watch on patrol in a Viking APC in Helmand province, Afghanistan Photograph: Sean Smith

The plan was simple: with overwhelming force, the British soldiers would arrive in Babaji – one of the most dangerous insurgent strongholds in southern Afghanistan - and scare away the local Taliban without a fight, leaving a permanent military presence in the area for the first time, winning over local people and persuading them to stand up to their Taliban masters .

But Operation Panchai Palang (Panther's Claw) – the biggest air assault mounted by British troops since 2001, involving hundreds of soldiers being dropped from Chinooks – did not go quite according to plan.

The aim was to claim a lawless part of Afghanistan's troublesome south for the distant and disliked government far away in Kabul. They would seize the area, put up fortifications to limit movement and impose some order and authority.

But, despite the strict secrecy that cloaked the operation, the local people seemed to have got wind of it and – scared by the prospect of intense fighting – voted with their feet.
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