Friday, February 12, 2010

Allied forces poised for biggest push of Afghanistan war

The Guardian

Skirmishes erupt and citizens flee as Taliban hole up in marsh town on eve of largest military offensive

Thousands of American and Afghan soldiers are poised to pounce on a major Taliban stronghold and narcotics hub in Helmand province as part of the biggest military offensive of the nine-year war.

Skirmishes have erupted on the fringes of Marjah, a town in the Helmand river valley, where hundreds of Taliban fighters are thought to be holed up. The town, whose citizens were fleeing, is surrounded by a treacherous network of canals and heavily mined fields and roads.

Most of the opposing forces were locked in a stand-off. The US marine-led Nato force, which has been ringing the town for the past week, was still sealing off escape routes into the desert.

Roads leading from Marjah, home to an estimated 125,000 people, were clogged with cars and buses filled with civilians. It was not clear how many remained behind.

Government officials have made provisions for 7,000 displaced families in the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gah. But just 450 families had turned up.

Some of those escaping told Afghan reporters they were trying to slip quietly out of Marjah, fearing Taliban retribution.

The operation start date remains a secret but its American commander, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, has vowed to go in "big, strong and fast". British troops are expected to launch simultaneous attacks on other Taliban strongholds in the province. In all, about 15,000 British and American troops will be involved.

A Taliban spokesman dismissed the operation as "more propaganda than military necessity".

What is being billed as Nato's largest assault since 2001 has also been its most heavily telegraphed. Sensitive to Afghan criticisms of civilian casualties, Nato commanders have given loud warning of their intentions to ensure villagers have time to flee or hunker down in their homes.

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