Assault on Taliban in southern Afghanistan begins: NATO

KABUL, Lynne O'Donnell - Thousands of US-led troops have begun a major offensive against one of the Taliban insurgents' last bastions in southern Afghanistan, a NATO official said Saturday.
The assault on Marjah, in one of the world's biggest opium-producing regions of Helmand province, is the first phase of a major operation to re-establish Afghan government control over the region.
"Reports that the offensive has begun are not incorrect," said the official, who asked not to be named.

An Australian soldier
An Australian soldier
Operation Mushtarak ("together" in Dari) is expected to be the biggest push against insurgents since President Barack Obama announced a new surge of US troops in Afghanistan and one of the biggest since the 2001 invasion defeated the Taliban regime.
Many of the town's population of around 80,000 fled ahead of the offensive to escape the violence.
But in recent days, militants who have moved into Marjah have prevented many others from leaving.
NATO helicopters dropped leaflets on the town and surrounding area -- which has an estimated total population of 125,000 -- warning people to remain indoors once the offensive began.
Radio broadcast messages telling people that the Afghan and international troops had come to rid their area of insurgents and that no civilians would be harmed.
Afghan and NATO officials refuse to say how many troops have been deployed to Marjah, but the BBC website reported that this was around 15,000 soldiers, including 2,500 Afghan military personnel.
NATO officials have said that US Marines are leading the assault with Afghan and British forces. The BBC has reported that Danes and Estonians are also involved.
Estimates of how many Taliban are in the town range from 400 to 1,000.
Operation Mushtarak is expected to last for some weeks, as up to 1,000 Taliban fighters are believed to have hunkered down in and around the town, prepared for a bloody fight.
The Taliban have spent recent weeks building their numbers and lacing the area with hidden improvised explosive devises, or IEDs, which Western military planners say will be their biggest challenge as the assault proceeds.
Most deaths and casualties among troops fighting the insurgents are caused by IEDs. Civilians also suffered severe losses and injuries to Taliban tactics, which also include suicide bomb attacks.
The Marjah offensive echoes others last year further south in the Helmand River valley -- the British-led Operation Panthers' Claw and the Marines' Operation Dagger -- which successfully cleared out militants.
The theory is that once the insurgents are gone, Afghan government authority can be re-established over what has become the world's biggest poppy growing region, where Taliban and drug traffickers have worked in tandem for years.
Up to 1,000 Afghan police are said to be on stand-by to move in behind the military to set up police stations and replace the Taliban's rough justice, paving the way for other civil services, including schools and hospitals.
NATO and Afghan officials, including Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, have said farmers in the fertile region, once freed of the Taliban yoke, will be able to grow what crops they like and get them to the markets they want.
Afghanistan's illicit drug output is worth close to three billion dollars a year, which helps fund the insurgents, who also control transportation routes taking the poppy by-products out and bringing guns and fighters in.

Saturday, February 13th 2010
Lynne O'Donnell

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