In the baking heat and dust of Afghanistan last week Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe was heading into hostile territory to check on his men engaged in a big operation against the Taliban. He was riding in the front passenger seat of a Viking BVS10, a tracked vehicle with two cabins, originally designed for Arctic combat. The air-conditioning is poor and the armour not much better. Vikings are protected on the upper side but vulnerable to bombs exploding below. In other circumstances, Thorneloe, a senior officer with 1,000 men under his command, would have travelled by helicopter; but it appears none was available (though yesterday the Ministry of Defence declined to confirm or deny this). He wanted to get up among his boys at the first possible opportunity, said an MoD spokesman. A resupply convoy was going up there and he hitched a lift on that. The commander, he said, wanted to get the lie of the land in the offensive against insurgents. As the Viking approached a canal crossing, it passed over a hidden IED - improvised explosive device which destroyed the front cab. Thorneloe and the driver, Trooper Joshua Hammond, died instantly. Back at base, Major Martyn Miles, one of Thorneloes senior officers, heard the news over the radio. Details began to come over the network and many couldnt believe it at first, said Miles, 49, from Boston, Lincolnshire. Thorneloe, 39, was a well-respected officer who led from the front. But the headquarters and especially the men on the ground dealt with the situation with the utmost professionalism, said Miles. Our first thoughts were to do as much as we could for everyone who was in the vehicle when it struck the IED. Six other soldiers in the Viking were wounded by the explosion, two seriously. Colonel Rupert felt very strongly that what we were doing here was important, and he instilled that in each and every one of us, said Miles. We have a very definite reason for being here and all of us are determined that the loss of four of our family since the start of this tour will not be in vain. Prince Charles, who knew Thorneloe, said he was deeply saddened by the deaths. Thorneloes wife, Sally, said: Rupert was my very best friend and his death is a devastating blow. Our daughters, Hannah and Sophie, will have to grown up without their beloved Daddy, although I will see a part of him in them every day. Yesterday the fiance of Hammond, who was 18, revealed that his last words to her had been: Ill come home safe. Emma Green, a 19-year-old bank clerk, said: We were planning to get married next year that is what we were holding onto to get us through. He was, and still is, my childhood sweetheart. There are likely to be more casualties. Last night hundreds of soldiers were sweeping through areas of central Helmand by vehicle and on foot, seizing key canal crossing points and clearing Taliban insurgents from the area. The third phase of operation Pan-chai Palang Panthers Claw brought another 750 British and Afghan troops, including the Light Dragoons and the 2nd Battalion, The Mercian Regiment, into the fray. There is a lot of close-quarters fighting at times, said the MoD spokesman. The insurgents are just metres away. Our boys are using their full array of weaponry, at times hurling hand-grenades into positions to flush out the enemy. The conditions are tough sweltering heat, difficult terrain riddled with ditches, canals and places for the enemy to hide, and they are springing ambushes, but we have made significant progress. We have already secured the crossings along two major waterways to the north of Lashkar Gah, recovered a large number of IEDs, fought back the enemy in several locations and cleared villages along the way. About 3,000 British, Danish, Estonian and Afghan soldiers from Task Force Helmand are taking part in the operation north of Lashkar Gah while 4,000 men from the USled Task Force Leatherneck are conducting Operation Khanjar Strike of the Sword around the Garmsir and Nawa districts. The arrival of US marines part of an American surge that will involve pouring 17,000 US troops into southern Afghanistan has relieved some of the pressure. The British have given up control of the bulk of the province to the Americans and are now responsible mainly for the central area around the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, though some forces are also still in the north. Its all part of a strategic change. In future, American and British troops will be expected to hold their ground, providing security for local people while denying the insurgents access to vital supplies, funding and recruits. You dont really need to chase and kill the Taliban, said General Stanley McChrystal, the former special forces chief and newly appointed US commander of all allied troops in Afghanistan. What you need to do is take away the one thing they absolutely have to have and thats access and the support of the people. AMERICAN helicopters swooped into southern Helmand last week a surge ordered by President Barack Obama. Senior commanders are under orders from Washington to secure Helmand in time for the Afghan presidential elections in August. The Americans want to be able to say they are winning by this time next year. In a spectacular show of force, contrasting strongly with the British lack of equipment, heavily armed marines, backed up by drones and fighter jets, stormed into the south of Afghanistans most dangerous province shortly after midnight on Wednesday. It was the biggest operation in Afghanistan since the Soviet occupation, and the largest American assault since the Battle for Fallu-jah in Iraq in 2004. The marines mission is to secure the villages along a stretch of river more than 55 miles long in the heart of poppy-growing territory. They also hope to choke the Taliban supply lines used to ferry guns, drugs and fighters in and out of Pakistan. Most of the Taliban melted away as convoys of marines in state-of-the-art mine resistant trucks drove further into their heartland. One marine was killed in fighting and at least two others were injured when a roadside bomb struck their vehicle. Cobra attack helicopters were seen firing into tree lines as the marines advanced, though much of the fighting was sporadic. Brigadier-General Larry Nicholson said there was a hell of a fight going on in the southern quarter of the sector but described other parts of the province as too quiet. He said: Something is eerie. The enemy has gone to ground; shuras [councils of elders] are being set up. In the next few days the enemy will observe us to see what we are doing. Then they will come back with a vengeance. Afghans fear the return of the insurgents, but many would prefer to be ruled by the Taliban than to be caught in the crossfire. Foreign forces are still viewed as a source of danger, according to Hajji Taj Muhammed, from the village of Mar-ja, whose house was bombed two months ago. We Muslims dont like them, he said. Hajji Abdul Ahad Helmandwal, a district council leader from Nad Ali, in Helmand province, said: People are hostages of the Taliban, but they look at the coalition also as the enemy, because they have not seen anything good from them in seven or eight years. Now, however, a new American counterinsurgency doctrine puts protecting civilians above killing Taliban. We do not want the people of Helmand province to see us as an enemy, we want to protect them from the enemy, said Captain Bill Pelletier, an American spokesman. That sentiment is echoed in a tactical directive designed to slash civilian casualties from airstrikes. McChrystal has ordered troops to avoid airstrikes unless they risk being overrun or they are sure there are no civilians nearby. US officials said last night that they had resisted using mortars, artillery or aircraft bombs during the push south. However, the tactics and doctrine of clear, hold and build could expose soldiers to ambushes and roadside bombs of the sort that killed Thorneloe. Nor have the Taliban stopped opportunist attacks elsewhere. In eastern Afghanistan, away from the main offensive, a US soldier was captured after moving away from his post in Paktika province. He is thought to have been seized by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a powerful Taliban figure based in Pakistan who controls large parts of Afghanistan along the border. Yesterday it was reported that a US soldier and Afghan officer were killed when a suicide car bomber attacked a base in the south of Paktika. Local people remain suspicious that British and US forces will be unable to stop the Taliban returning. The British troops they come, they bomb an area and capture it, then they give it back and the Taliban come back, complained Mohammed Sabir, a 19-year-old student who fled Garmsir to live in Lashkar Gah because the schools in his village were destroyed. The fighting begins again and in between the civilians die. The Americans have promised to change that. Nicholson said: Where we go we will stay, and where we stay we will hold, build and work toward transition of all security responsibilities to Afghan forces. SO FAR, however, the allies reconstruction efforts in rural areas have been depressingly limited. Efforts to win hearts and minds with quick impact projects have been largely futile, said Matt Waldman, an independent development analyst. According to Ian Kelly, a US state department spokesman, only two US civilians are working in Helmand, with four more to follow in the next few weeks. Some observers believe that too few US troops have been sent to Afghanistan to secure troubled areas, and that the Afghan military and security forces are nowhere near large enough to take on the job. John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert who was appointed last week to the defence policy board at the Pentagon, said: We do not have enough troops to hold what we have cleared in Helmand. The additional American troops are a help, but they are insufficient. We have more fighting in Afghanistan in front of us than we have fighting behind us, full stop. This is going to be a harder fight than Iraq. Afghanistan needs [to create its own] national army of 250,000 to enable the allies to depart. At present the Afghan national army has about 92,000 troops, while the police force numbers 83,000. More US troops are needed to fill the gap, but first they would have to be diverted from Iraq. General Jim Jones, Obamas national security adviser, who has been criticised for his allegedly lazy nine-to-five handling of the job, is at odds with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, after appearing to suggest that Obama would not countenance sending further troops. Admiral Mullen certainly appeared to disagree with the way General Joness remarks were interpreted, said Nagl. With the right number of troops, it is possible that America will be able to leave Afghanistan with our heads held high, he added. Without them, Afghanistan will look less like postsurge Iraq and more like presurge Iraq, when additional troops were constantly requested by commanders on the ground, but opposed by defence chiefs to the point where the war was almost lost. As Nagl observed of the looming challenges in Afghanistan: Weve seen this movie before.