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Afghanistan’s Very Public Offensive: Teasing Out the Taliban or Walking into a Trap?

Golnar Motevalli

Back in December, we were told about an operation, at some point in the near-future, which will target a Taliban hotspot in Afghanistan's dangerous and restive southern Helmand province.

The U.S. Marines had been in Helmand since May and had already completed one major operation, Operation Khanjar, which saw them advancing into parts of Helmand where NATO forces, specifically the British, had until that point been struggling to break a stalemate with insurgents. Khanjar was very well covered by the media and it was touted as the biggest Marine offensive since the battle of Fallujah in Iraq in 2004 and the biggest airborne assault since the Vietnam War.

Operation Moshdarak, we have been told for the past two months, will apparently trump Khanjar in size and scale. It involves less Marines but more Afghan troops and more British troops. Moshdarak, which aims to take Marjah, a town said by Marine commanders to be one of the few left in Helmand still under total Taliban control, has been promoted by the U.S. military and NATO with enthusiasm and zeal.

Much has also been made of the Afghan army contribution to the operation. There will be more Afghan soldiers involved in Moshdarak than in any other joint operation conducted in the war in Afghanistan so far. But the emphasis on the Afghan soldier's involvement serves more as a signal from Washington to Kabul and the rest of the world that Afghans need to start taking over the steering wheel when it comes to managing their own security. Ill equipped, and young, there are question marks over how much power and strength the Afghan army can bring to an operation this size.

The reason for publicising the operation so far in advance and feeding it to the media, we have been told, is so that Taliban fighters come out of the woodwork and prepare to face the strength of the U.S. military and its allies. NATO also hopes that radio announcements will persuade some fighters to give up and run away.

But the months of notice have also given insurgents ample opportunity to place plenty of bombs and booby traps in Marjah. Heavy rainfall in and around the town in the last few days may have done some damage to command-wire bombs - the kind that are triggered by a spotter from a distance. But Marines and soldiers say they never underestimate the deftness of their enemy when it comes to their crude expertise in the lethal art of bomb-making. They often comment on insurgents' canny ability at planting complex networks of explosives and their success with tricky ambushes that force foreign troops to take cover behind walls rigged with bombs.

On some bases close to Marjah, Marines say they are already finding an average of three improvised explosive devices a day on the outskirts of the town. What awaits them in the centre of Marjah, only the insurgents know.

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