THE Scots soldier who led the highly successful attack on the Taleban stronghold of Musa Qala in Afghanistan yesterday told how his command post came under mortar fire during the battle, forcing his driver to shoot two enemy fighters.
Unusually for a senior officer, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, who was born in Elgin, insisted on being where the action was taking place and marched across no-man's land to reach Roshan Hill, a high point above the town, with a band of only ten troops.
From the a makeshift headquarters – "just a hole in the ground really" – he was able to see the final moments of his battleplan unfold. The attack was so successful that the Pentagon described it as the best operation to come out of Afghanistan for years, according to sources.
But Brigadier Mackay, who commands 6,000 troops in the Edinburgh-based 52 Brigade, cautioned that the hardest part of the operation – stabilising the area – was still to come.
He told how he and his small group of troops joined with United States forces on the hill after being dropped off by helicopter. They were only 700 metres from the frontline and came under fire from Taleban mortar.
Spotted by a US Apache helicopter, the brigadier passed the detail on to his aide. Sgt Malcolm Franks, 34, then shouldered a machine gun – and the mortar shells stopped landing. "My driver shot two Taleban. If you have a brigadier firing, then you are really in trouble," he laughed.
Operation Mar (Pashtun for snake) to retake the Taleban stronghold – which fell to British, US and Afghan troops on Wednesday – began early last month with the deployment of the Warrior Company of 200 troops, Scots Guards and Marines, armed with light Warrior tanks, positioned to the east of the town.
Brigadier Mackay, 50, said: "The intent was to begin wearing the Taleban down, dislocate them, punch them hard when they ventured out, lower their morale and begin to separate out the tier one – the key leaders and more ideologically driven – and the tier two – the guns for hire, not in for the long haul.
"I never get into discussing Taleban body counts, it is … not an appropriate measure of success in an insurgency. Let's just say a great deal of Taleban never made it to fight another day."
The initial attacks on Musa Qala led to a "vicious" Taleban counter-strike in the Sangin Valley, with Royal Marine Commandos experiencing two days of rocket and mortar attacks. Brigadier Mackay then took a "calculated risk" to push more troops to the other side of the town, to keep the enemy guessing.
On 17 November, the plan to retake Musa Qala was "sold" to the top brass at a secret meeting in Kandahar. Given the green light by US General Dan McNeil, the top military man in Afghanistan, the noose was tightened around the Taleban as the Household Cavalry was pushed closer to the town as reinforcements.
Commandos, Afghan National Army (ANA) and US forces also blocked main routes to stop enemy reinforcements. Brigadier Mackay, who was turned down when he first tried to join the army, spoke to his troops the night before the attack was launched. "I think I told them the best people are always good at plan B because plan A never survives in the Army. But this time plan A did survive," he said.
On 7 December, US and ANA troops began a "feint", attacking the enemy on the south-west edge of the town. That night a convoy of Chinook, Black Hawks and Apache helicopters of the US 82nd Airborne Division appeared, landing 600 men and equipment in 13 minutes, to seize Roshan Hill.
Musa Qala became a ghost town as leaflets warned locals to leave as the attack intensified. House-to-house fighting did not erupt as many Taleban chose to flee, but General Muhayeddin Ghori of the ANA said "hundreds" were killed or captured.
Two or three civilians are thought to have been killed, according to the British, though casualty numbers for either side are impossible to verify.
Brigadier Mackay was flown in a week last Sunday, and by Tuesday after clearing compounds and mopping up pockets of enemy troops, ANA soldiers reached the town centre – a symbolic moment aimed at showing locals their own men can defeat the insurgents.
The battle was won, but the war is far from over against the Taleban. "They will come back. They understand the ground very well, travel light and move fast. They're astute and brave. They are never to be underestimated," Brigadier Mackay said.
"The hard part of this operation is the stabilisation phase – the reconstruction and development phase – getting that right is how the operation should be judged."
UNITED IN TERROR
MILITANT groups in Pakistan's wild north-west region have organised into a single unit threatening to step up operations against the Pakistan army and Nato forces in Afghanistan.
The insurgents have named Baitullah Mehsud as their leader, a tribal chief from the Waziristan region, which borders Afghanistan.
Mehsud, a charismatic figure with a fearsome reputation, took prisoner more than 200 Pakistani soldiers earlier this year who were only freed after the authorities released some Taleban prisoners.
The Tehreek Taleban-i Pakistan was launched after a meeting of 40 Taleban leaders in Waziristan. They came not only from the semi-autonomous tribal belt, which runs along the Afghan border, but from several districts of "settled" areas of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province.
"The sole objective of the meeting was to unite the Taleban against Nato forces in Afghanistan and to wage a defensive jihad against Pakistani forces here," Mehsud's spokesman Maulvi Omar said.
Pakistani troops have only just managed to expel a band of around 5,000 Taleban warriors who had taken over the valley of Swat, previously known as a holiday destination.
Khalid Aziz, a political consultant based in Peshawar, said that, like the Taleban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Pakistani militants were coming together to further their political goals.
"This is a dual-track strategy, they will use force and also negotiate. It is like an armed political party," he said.
The Taleban was originally a movement that developed in Afghanistan under Mullah Omar, and became powerful enough to seize power in 1996. It always had strong ties to tribesmen in North West Pakistan. The Pakistani tribes turned against the state after 9/11 when, under US pressure, the Pakistan army was sent into the tribal belt to fight Taleban and al-Qaeda extremists who had taken refuge there.