Saturday, February 13, 2010

US/NATO Launches Major Offensive Against the Afghanistan People

Nato launches major Afghanistan offensive


US-led Nato troops launched an offensive on Saturday against the Taliban's last big stronghold in Afghanistan's most violent province and were quickly thrown into a firefight with the militants.

The assault is the first since President Barack Obama ordered a "surge" of extra troops to Afghanistan in December and the start of a campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas this year, before US forces start to withdraw in 2011.

Within hours of the operation getting under way, US marines at the tip of the assault battled with Taliban militants in the town of Marjah, the last big militant bastion in Afghanistan's violent Helmand Province.

Reuters reporter Golnar Motevalli saw marines engaging in a firefight with Taliban fighters after the US troops landed in helicopters near the city.

Marines fired at least four rockets at militants who attacked from compounds. At least one marine was wounded by shrapnel.

"They are about 300m away," Motevalli said as the sound of assault rifles crackled in the background. Moments earlier, two large explosions resounded and a large black plume of smoke rose into the sky.

The offensive began with waves of helicopters ferrying marines into the city in the early morning hours. British troops then flew into the northern part of the surrounding Nad Ali district, followed by tanks and combat engineering units.

The first objective of marines was to take over the town centre, a large cluster of dwellings, despite the risk of being blown up by bombs rigged by the Taliban.

Gunfire, explosions

Bursts of gunfire rattled through the area as servicemen anticipated their first contact with the militants.

By mid-morning, a couple of large explosions boomed, with a big plume of black smoke rising skywards. One was apparently an improvised rocket with plastic explosives designed to set off roadside bombs.

The 15 000-troop operation may have been named Mushtarak, or together, to highlight that Nato and Afghan forces were determined to work closely to bring stability to Afghanistan, a country often brought to its knees by one war after another.

Decades ago the Marjah area was home to an Afghan-American development project. Its canals, which criss-cross lush farmland, were built by the Americans.

Now Nato is trying to recapture it from a militant group that is highly unlikely to contemplate cooperation with the West.

"Insurgents who do not accept the government's offer to reintegrate and join the political process will be met with overwhelming force," the joint Nato-Afghan coalition said in a statement announcing the start of clearing operations.

A local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters earlier about 2 000 fighters were ready to fight in the densely-populated area.

The safety of civilians may be the vital issue for Nato in one of the eight-year-old war's biggest offensives against the Taliban, which have re-emerged as a powerful fighting force since they were toppled by a US-led invasion in 2001.

Any heavy civilian casualties would make it even more difficult for the American-backed Afghan government to win support in towns that have been held by Taliban insurgents.

Nato forces have decided to advise civilians not to leave their homes, although they have said they do not know whether the assault will lead to heavy fighting.

'Just my house'

Most residents of the area, estimated at up to 100 000, have stayed put. But others have headed 30km east to the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah. "All the walls between the streets and houses are surrounded by bombs. Most people have gone to Lashkar Gah. That's where we want to go today," resident Abdel Aziz (16) told the marines through a translator.

Soon after, an old woman emerged from her house and asked the troops not to fire at it.

"This is just my house," she told the marines.

Unlike previous military operations, the assault on Marjah has been widely flagged for months. Commanders say they hope this will persuade many fighters to lay down their arms or flee.

Residents have been afraid to leave their homes in fear of roadside bombs planted by the Taliban to slow the US advance.

Marjah has been a breeding ground for both insurgents and opium poppy cultivation for years. Much may depend on whether the state can ensure long-term political and economic stability to erase the conditions that have encouraged militancy. - AFP

Source: Mail & Guardian Online
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Saturday, February 13, 2010
20:22 Mecca time, 17:22 GMT

Nato launches major Afghan assault

The assault is the largest undertaken since Obama ordered extra US troops to Afghanistan

US-led Nato troops have launched a long-expected attack on the biggest Taliban-held town in the south of Afghanistan.

Helicopter-borne US marines and Afghan troops backed by British forces swept into Taliban-held town of Marjah, in the centre of Helmand province, early on Saturday.

Thousands of US and Afghan troops are taking part in the offensive, which seeks to undermine support for the Taliban and re-establish government control in the area.

The offensive, known as Operation Moshtarak, the Dari word for "together", is the biggest joint Afghan-international offensive of the war.

It is the largest combat operation since Barack Obama, the US president, ordered 30,000 US reinforcements to Afghanistan last December.

Danish, Estonian and Canadian troops are also involved in the campaign.

Several casualties

Soon after the offensive began, five Taliban fighters were reported killed.

And by the first day's end, one service member of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) had died in a bomb attack while another was killed by gunfire, according to a spokesman for the Nato-led multinational force.

Nato declined to give their nationalities.

Separately, the UK defence ministry announced the death of one British soldier from the 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards in an explosion while on vehicle patrol in Nad-e-Ali district of Helmand.

Elsewhere in southern Afghanistan, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device on a motorbike near US and Afghan troops on a joint foot patrol in Kandahar province on Saturday.

A police commander told Al Jazeera that two children were killed and that US forces also suffered casualties in the attack, which took place in Arghandab district, northwest of Kandahar city.

Fight for Marjah

Marine commanders say they expect anywhere between 400 to 1,000 fighters to be holed up inside Marjah, a town of 80,000 people, including more than 100 foreign fighters.

But Taliban sources have insisted the number is closer to 2,000.

Qari Yousef, a Taliban spokesman in the south, told Al Jazeera that foreign forces had been bombarding the area around Marjah for days and that the operation had in fact begun on February 7.

He also warned that the Taliban would offer stiff resistance.

"Our decision is that there will definitely be resistance because foreign invaders have come to invade our country," he said.

"If they need 15,000 troops to take over a small village - what will they need to take over a province which is under the Taliban's hands," he told Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera's Zeina Khodr reporting from Kabul, the capital, said: "We've been talking to the Taliban over recent days and they are making clear that they will defend the territory and fight till death."

"Foreign troops want to also send a clear message that the Afghan government will re-establish government presence in Marjah and separate the town from the Taliban to improve people's lives, open roads and government institutions, which is all part of the new Obama strategy being employed in the region," she said.

"It's not all military tactics because Marjah is really strategic, it's at the doorstep of Lashkar-Gah, the provincial capital of Helmand and if you open those roads you can improve economic development for the people, but they are worried, mostly about civilian casualties."

'Clearing' operation

Isaf termed the offensive a "clearing" operation to be followed by "smaller-scaled 'shaping' operations".

Mohammad Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, said earlier this week that local authorities were poised to move in behind the military operation to set up civil services, including police and security.

But Gilles Dorronsoro, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the plan's key weakness was that it failed to include a long-term plan to prevent the Taliban from returning to the area.

"The Afghan state is just a network of warlords [and] opium dealers - to think that these people are going to take Marjah and build a solid state there, I don't think so," he told Al Jazeera.

Marjah is at the heart of Afghanistan's opium production. Fighters there have exploited an irrigation system built in the 1950s with US aid aimed at turning the central Helmand River valley into Afghanistan's bread basket.

Janan Mosazai, an political analyst in Kabul, told Al Jazeera that while a military win in the area seemed assured, it would be the second stage of the operation that would be crucial.

"The test to this new approach ... will come when the operation is over - when the military stage is over - when there is a requirement for Afghan civilian authorities and for reconstruction specialists to move into Marjah and ... give the people of this area the confidence that this time it's different," he said.

"[They must show] that there will be a cleaner, more efficient, less corrupt government put into place and that there will be a police force that is not corrupt and doesn't scavenge on the local population ... [and] that this will be a fundamental, long-term change."

Exodus of civilians

Isaf and the Afghan government have stressed that they hope civilian casualties will be avoided, publicising their operation in advance.

Hundreds of civilians fled the area, but many have stayed.

Jamil Karzai, the head of the Afghan government's commission for national security, and a relative of the Afghan president, said that publicising the operation so heavily in advance had given away military advantage.

"They are just coming to the media and talking to the media and letting their enemies know there is a big operation against them ... everyone out in the country knows about this operation and of course the Taliban and al-Qaeda left the area," he told Al Jazeera.

He said that long-term success would only come from having Afghan forces playing a lead role in any assault.

"Our Afghan forces understand the ground realities, they understand the region, they understand how to fight al-Qaeda and [the] Taliban. When our army or our police are supported from international forces - by American forces - when they are on the ground ... we will win," he said.

"If international forces are ahead, on the frontline, and our national forces are are in the backstage, we will never win this war."

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies

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