Planned Afghan assault to send 'strong signal': McChrystal

KABUL, Lynne O'Donnell- The commander of foreign forces in Afghanistan said Sunday a major offensive will send a "strong signal" and clear insurgents from their southern stronghold, as residents fled ahead of the assault.
A huge force of US Marines leading NATO and Afghan soldiers is expected to launch the offensive -- said by commanders to be the largest assault against Taliban-led militants since the war began -- in Helmand province within days.

US General Stanley McChrystal
US General Stanley McChrystal
Operation Mushtarak ("Together") will "send a strong signal that the Afghan government is expanding its security control," said US General Stanley McChrystal, who leads 113,000 US and NATO forces fighting the militants.
The operation is to be centred on the Marjah plain in the central Helmand River valley, home to around 80,000 people and said by military officials to be the last bastion of Taliban control.
As part of his counter-insurgency strategy emphasising development and governance, McChrystal said the Marjah operation was not about killing Taliban fighters but eradicating the militant threat.
Whether fighters left the region or rejoined society -- as President Hamid Karzai's reconciliation programme encourages them to do -- the aim was to establish Afghan civilian governance, he said.
"We're trying to make this not a military operation only, but a civilian and military operation because the thing that is changing is not just going to be the level of security in the area but the governance," McChrystal said.
"So all the planning for this operation has been led by the civilian side with the military in support -- and of course this is an Afghan-led operation."
The head of the provincial refugees and repatriation department said authorities were preparing to receive up to 10,000 people, as about 2,000 had already left Marjah.
"Around 400 families have been displaced from the Nad Ali and Marjah areas," said Ghulam Farouq Noorzai.
Authorities had set up an emergency response committee in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah to provide food and shelter for those fleeing, he said.
A mini-van driver who would not give his name, told AFP: "I have made five or six trips between Marjah and Lashkah Gar today, bringing people out of the area."
Marjah, home to 80,000 people, is a major base for growing poppies, the raw material of opium and heroin, which help fund the insurgency. Officials say farmers are coerced by militants into growing poppies rather than other crops.
"For individuals who live in Marjah, who right now live under Taliban control with narco-traffickers there, they don't have a lot of choices," McChrystal told reporters.
"We are trying to communicate to them that when the government re-establishes security they'll have choices."
"They'll have choices on the crops they grow, they'll have the ability to move that produce to appropriate markets, they won't be limited to narco-traffickers who can force them into that," he added.
Mushtarak echoes assaults last year -- the British Operation Panther's Claw and the Marines' Operation Dagger -- that were seen as successfully eradicating militants who had controlled other poppy-growing regions in the Helmand valley.
Preparatory operations around Marjah, south of Lashkar Gah, have been going on for weeks, with leaflets dropped on the area from NATO helicopters warning residents of the assault to come.
Military officials said the operation had been planned in cooperation with Afghan authorities, and would enable them to move in to establish civilian institutions, including police, education and health.
Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, who started his new job Sunday, said Marjah would provide an example of how "governance and development follows up any advances we make in security".
"To the Afghan citizen what matters is can his kids get to school, is the school open, is the clinic open, can they get decent justice from the Afghan government rather than the Taliban?" Sedwill said.
Sedwill, until this month British ambassador to Afghanistan, echoed McChrystal in saying "the situation in Afghanistan remains serious but is no longer deteriorating.
"Both of us are confident... that at the end of 2010 we will be in a much better position than we are now," he said.

Monday, February 8th 2010
Lynne O'Donnell

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