Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Battle starts to win over Helmand locals and wean them off poppy growing

Ronald Watson, The Times Online

Afghan civilians will today begin to pour into the district cleared by British troops in a pivotal phase of the operation to banish the Taleban.

Governor Mangal in Helmand Province

Teachers and civil servants, together with foreign engineers, will begin to try to cement the military gains of Operation Moshtarak by winning the trust of locals.

Over the coming weeks, thousands of farmers will be given alfalfa seed, maize and summer vegetables to help them to move away from poppy growing. Local government will set up bases in villages that have not seen an official for decades.

The moves will be signalled today by Gulab Mangal, the Governor of Helmand province, as he announces the end of the military offensive in Nad Ali district and the beginning of the civilian phase to follow it.Operation Moshtarak involves 15,000 US, Nato and Afghan forces fighting to clear the Taleban, and then envisages a concerted civic drive to prevent them returning.

British and Afghan troops met little opposition as they advanced through Nad Ali province. US Marines and Afghan forces have faced tougher resistance from insurgents in and around the town of Marjah to the southwest.

US commanders conceded yesterday that that part of the operation was behind schedule. Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said that progress was slower than expected. Admiral Mike Mullen said that the operation in and around Marjah was “messy”.

Western officials are all the more anxious to highlight the success so far in Nad Ali, while conceding that the most important work in terms of ultimate success is yet to come.

Nato forces will continue to provide security around the district while the civilian phase gets into gear. The aim is for Afghan leaders to call shuras, or village meetings, to try to convince local people that the influence of Kabul is there to stay and that they need not fear the return of the Taleban.

British and US engineers will also oversee the refurbishment of infrastructure such as schools, health clinics and canals.

Douglas Alexander, the International Development Secretary, said that the civilian drive was vital to “help people help themselves”.

He said: “The operation is going well but we must also persuade the Afghan people that it is in their own best interests to resist the insurgency, and to support their own Government. The Government of Afghanistan will need to prove that it offers a better, fairer and more effective alternative to the Taleban.”

General Stanley McChrystal, the top US commander in Afghanistan, said earlier this month: “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.”

The plan is for the number of civilians going into areas cleared of insurgents to increase over weeks and months. Over time the number of Afghan officials is expected to quadruple to about 100. They will help to give jobs to locals to improve and repair infrastructure that has been neglected under the Taleban.

Officials also regard speed as vital to demonstrate that the Kabul Government is in charge and that the international community will not desert them.

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