Operation Moshtarak: Can it succeed?
15,000 Nato and Afghan troops are taking on the Taliban in Helmand. Is it worth the risk?
Four thousand British troops are taking part in Operation Moshtarak, the biggest and most dangerous offensive ever launched against the Taliban since the conflict in Afghanistan began in 2001. The operation was launched in the early hours of Saturday in central Helmand province.
By nightfall, one British soldier and one US marine were reported dead - and the British public have been warned by senior Army officers and by Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth to expect many more casualties.
So what is the purpose of Operation Moshtarak - and is it worth the risk?
WHAT IS THE OBJECTIVE?A total of 15,000 American, British and Afghan assault troops will attempt to drive the Taliban out of the town of Marjah and surrounding villages in the Helmand River valley.
Marjah is the biggest town in southern Afghanistan under Taliban control and is a well-known centre for roadside bomb making and for the opium poppy trade.
Gen Stanley McChrystal, the overall Nato commander in Afghanistan, and the man who persuaded President Obama to send 30,000 extra US troops to Afghanistan, believes the operation will "send a strong signal that the Afghan government is expanding its security control". Afghan people living in the area will finally be freed from the yoke of Taliban control.
WHAT RESISTANCE CAN THE TROOPS EXPECT?Estimates put the number of Taliban fighters in the town of Marjah at somewhere between 300 and 1,000. But despite the low number, Col Richard Kemp, who commanded forces in Afghanistan in 2006, has warned of heavy fighting.
"The Taliban know the area very well and will have prepared escape routes through tunnels, alleyways or buildings," he said. "There will be a lot of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), a lot of snipers and a lot of hit and run."
Mullah Sharadulldine, a Taliban leader, speaking from within Marjah, told the Financial Times shortly before Operation Moshtarak was launched: "We are well prepared to fight any kind of attacks by the infidels. We also have brave international Mujahadeen beside us."
One Marjah resident told western reporters last week: "They are bringing in people and weapons and planting mines. We know there is going to be a big fight."
WHAT ABOUT THE AFGHAN CIVILIANS?A series of leaflet drops in early February persuaded many townspeople and villagers to leave the area. Before the operation was launched, provincial officials estimated that 35,000 residents of Marjah had left, out of a population of 80,000.
But many have complained that Nato commanders did not consider the practicalities of moving out. One man heading to Laskhar Gah with his wife, 13 children and assorted grandchildren told the Associated Press agency: "I can stay [away] for one or two weeks. But if I have to leave my agriculture land for months and months, then how will I feed my family?"
WHAT MAKES NATO THINK THIS WILL WORK?The operation is central to McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy - reduce civilian casualties and convince the local population that the Americans and Nato can protect them.
Maj Gen Nick Carter, the British general in charge of the operation, insists Operation Moshtarak will be different from previous offensives against the Taliban. This time, says Carter, large numbers of newly trained Afghan police, supported by coalition forces, will move in to maintain security and keep the Taliban out for good.
ARE THE AFGHAN POLICE UP TO IT?This is the problem. Many observers, including Army officers, journalists and diplomats, say McChrystal, Carter and other senior commanders are kidding themselves. Many of the fledgling Afghan police are illiterate, many clearly incompetent.
The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner, reporting from the regional headquarters in Kandahar in the build-up to Operation Moshtarak, said Nato commanders are aware of the Afghan police's "sometimes dubious reputation" and plan to monitor their performance. Many observers say this does not bode well.
WHY did NATO FOREWARN THE TALIBAN?Nato commanders are convinced that the Taliban insurgency contains "less committed" elements as well as the ideological hardliners willing to lay down their lives for their cause. By advertising Operation Moshtarak, commanders hoped the more
casual insurgent fighters would run rather than choose to stand and fight 15,000 well-armed troops. First indications are that they judged this correctly: many Taliban had fled Marjah by the time US marines entered the town, according to a report in the Sunday Times.
WHAT IS THE RISK OF CASUALTIES?High. Britain's Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth says the Marjah area is "not a safe environment" and has called on the British public to "hold its resolve".
In the last major offensive involving UK troops - Operation Panther's Claw - 10 soldiers were killed and many seriously wounded. But that operation involved only 350 troops. Col Kemp has warned: "We will probably have to brace ourselves for a large number of casualties."
Other officers fear the Taliban shooting down a Chinook helicopter loaded with British troops.
IS IT WORTH IT? Military commanders, Gen McChrystal chief among them, believe so. A British Army spokesman said: "I think there is a very good chance that this will work. The areas will be cleared, military operations will be followed up by what is actually the important bit of this campaign which is the Afghans delivering security for themselves."
But many independent observers remain highly sceptical - mainly because they do not trust the Afghan police to carry the policy through. Whatever the news from the frontline in the coming days, it may be months before we learn whether McChrystal's strategy was on target. ·
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