Friday, February 26, 2010

Afghanistan: Under their flag, but still under fire

Kim Sengupta, The Independant

Ten days ago, in this dusty town in Helmand the Taliban banner was triumphantly torn down and replaced with the Afghan national flag, a highly publicised celebration of the capture of Showal, where the insurgents had been running their "shadow government" for the Marjah region. A week later, just 20 metres from that newly hoisted flag, a roadside bomb exploded under a British truck.

The device had been planted on the main route into the town centre some time previously but the battery pack had been connected overnight, the telltale sign was a mound of fresh earth covering the twisted white electrical flex. One British officer noted the "sheer neck" of the Taliban in daring to activate the device in the presence of large numbers of coalition troops.

Fortunately, only the detonator and a small portion of the charge had gone off, for the full 30lbs would have made short shrift of the truck's crew and of others nearby. But the violence in the area, which was hailed as one of the first to be retaken in Operation Moshtarak, was a potent reminder that this war is far from over and many of the Taliban fighters have lived to fight another day.

If more evidence were needed, 24 hours later, on Wednesday, another improvised explosive device was found on the same road. And a shura, or public meeting, taking place in the same area near Shaheed came under fire, setting off a gun battle.

However, it cannot be said that a counter-offensive has started, that the Taliban are co-ordinating a massive response to what has been billed as the biggest Nato operation since the war began in 2001. The Taliban attacks, so far at least, have been sporadic, but they are designed to send a message that the insurgency is alive in this area, which is not only of great symbolic significance but is also a strategic arms and heroin depot for the militants, and a sanctuary where attacks can be planned and then launched elsewhere.

Operation Moshtarak got under way almost two weeks ago, heralding the start of Washington's much-trailed Afghan "surge", and the stakes could not be higher in what is now very much Barack Obama's war. The military push is to be followed by massive reconstruction and development, and a return of civic society that will hopefully pave the exit from a war that is becoming increasingly costly in "blood and treasure".

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