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Death On All Sides as NATO Offensive Begins
The Marjah Offensive - What are The Prospects?
No sooner had combat begun than both sides were claiming to have inflicted losses on their enemies. The Nato-led troops claimed to have killed five Taliban, while the rebels said they had killed six foreign soldiers.
Operation Mushtarak ("Together" in Dari) aims to secure Marjah district, a long-time Taliban bastion which is also reported to provide ten per cent of the world's opium.
British Defence Minister Bob Ainsworth declared that "casualties are something that we have to expect", while British Engineer Group commander Lieutenant Colonel Matt Bazeley warned that "it is bloody dangerous out there".
"We are going into the heart of darkness," he told his troops.
Pro-government forces number 15,000, while estimates of Taliban numbers vary between 400 and 2,000. But the rebels have the advantage of having occupied the area for years, being hard to distinguish from civilians and, apparently, having good enough relations with local people to lead generals to fear that many may shelter Taliban fighters.
The Afghan and international troops of Isaf did not even try to profit from the element of suprise, announcing that the offensive would take place several days before it began.
"Whether western troops trumpet their intentions or not, the Taliban know when their enemies will launch their attacks," says Gilles Dorronsoro, of the Carnegie Peace Foundation.
Instead, the offensive was preceded by a welter of press releases, perhaps aiming to convince the public in the US and UK that something serious was going on. And helicopters dropped leaflets on the target area, warning the population to stay indoors, rather than flee.
But rights campaigners fear that there will be civilian casualties.
"I suspect that they believe they have the ability to generally distinguish between combatants and civilians,' says Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch. "I would call that into question, given their long history of mistakes, particularly when using air power."
The Wall Street Journal reports that "frustration is boiling over" among frontline troops over more restrictive combat rules than those in place in Iraq.
"The line between peaceful villager and enemy fighter is often blurred," an editorial in the paper says.
Although civilian deaths are a source of enormous resentment in Afghanistan, the strategists insist they want to win hearts and minds. They plan to hand over power to pro-government officials as swiftly as possible, in line with President Hamid Karzai's repeated calls for "Afghanisation".
"We are going to arrive with Afghan governance as the tip of the spear," British General Nick Carter, who is the Nato commander for southern Afghanistan, told the BBC.
The principal aim of the offensive is to drive the Taliban out of Marjah, preferably forcing them right down to the southern border with Pakistan.
A decisive military defeat in Helmand would limit them to neighbouring Kandahar province, the western strategists hope. The aim is to hammer the rebels during this year's troop build-up, allowing withdrawal to start in 2011.
This is not the first offensive in Helmand.
When the British took over security in the province in 2006 their brief was modest - to control two population centres.
"But the British general in charge at the time all of a sudden decided to clean up the whole of Helmand province," says the Carnegie Peace Foundation's Dorronsoro. "It was a disaster."
"Then every year since you have a new offensive, which is to say that the only thing which explains this overinvestment in Helmand was the initial offensive which was compensated for by victory."
The model for Operation Mushtarak is Operation Khanjar ("dagger" in Dari and Pashtu), last summer's offensive in Garmser and Nawa districts.
It was judged a success as most of the Taliban fled, while heavily armed troops set up posts in key settlements and junctions. That was quickly followed by meetings, in which the pro-government forces' intention of staying was impressed on local elders.
But it failed in its aim to ensure security in August's presidential election, in which fraud was widespread in the south. Troops continue to suffer casualties from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which they are also likely to face in Marjah.
US and Nato commander General Stanley McChrystal has promised to follow military gains with development and aid. Government officials, police and army are poised to follow the combat troops into Marjah to establish control, according to Helmand governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal.
This time, the leaders of the pro-government forces insist, they intend to win and they intend to stay.