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Afghan Operation Moshtarak places success over surprise

British and Afghan forces prepare for battle in Helmand
British and Afghan forces prepare for battle in Helmand

By Frank Gardner
Security correspondent, BBC News, Kandahar airbase

If the success of all military operations depended on surprise, Operation Moshtarak would be doomed before it began.

But casting convention to one side, Afghan and Nato Isaf commanders behind the coming Moshtarak (meaning "together" in Dari) have purposefully given their insurgent enemy as much notice as possible that they are preparing to arrive in his midst.

For weeks now troops on the ground have been informing villagers in Helmand province that a major force is on its way.

Gatherings of elders are being held, where Afghan government officials are trying to persuade the local population in the areas of Marjah and Nad Ali to turn their backs on the Taliban and welcome Afghan government forces.

And stacked up in hangars here on the airbase are bundles of printed leaflets waiting to be airdropped when the weather clears.

They carry a stark message. "Moshtarak, the Combined Force and the people", it says, "will defeat the insurgents and bring a better life. Where will you stand? Help us and report enemy activity on this number."

'Fan club'

So why give the Taliban the heads-up and allow the insurgents time to escape or - just as likely - to scatter the paths of oncoming troops with lethal IEDs (improvised explosive devices)?

British and Afghan forces prepare for battle in Helmand
The coalition forces have asked locals for help

I put this to the man in charge of all 50,000-plus Nato/Isaf troops in southern Afghanistan, British Maj Gen Nick Carter.

"What we don't want to do is to have any collateral damage or to create civilian casualties. We want the population to act as our fan club when our Afghan security forces and ourselves arrive there.

"Because they will not only act as a restraint on potential insurgents, they will probably tell us where the improvised explosive devices are planted, and they will be positive towards our arrival."

That could be wishful thinking. The Taliban have had years to establish themselves in the lush valleys and concentrated mud-walled compounds of that part of central Helmand.

Once famed for the sweetness of its melons, the area is now a major centre for opium production, a multi-billion dollar business nationwide that has sucked in farmers, the Taliban and members of the government alike.

The Taliban will be loath to relinquish control and on Monday a purported spokesman was quoted as saying his forces would fight to the death.

Barack Obama, file pic
The operation will test the new strategy signed off by Barack Obama

Wherever the sympathies of the local farmers and villagers lie, the one thing guaranteed to alienate them is if their homes are turned into a battleground between the insurgents on the one hand and the coalition and Afghan government forces on the other.

Nato's new strategy in Afghanistan, signed off late last year by US President Barack Obama, rests on two principles - protecting the civilian population and partnering more closely with Afghan forces.

To that end, say Nato commanders, Operation Moshtarak has been planned from the end backwards, in other words with all phases geared to bringing security and good governance to central Helmand where it has been beyond government control until now.

They admit that many previous coalition operations have ultimately failed because after defeating the insurgents on the battlefield they have had too few forces to hold the ground and there has been too little political will to improve the lives of the population.

This time, they insist, will be different, with a comprehensive civil-military plan to establish the rule of law in central Helmand, bringing in newly trained police and a commitment to support the plan by the government in Kabul.

But the proof of success or failure will probably not be known for several weeks.

If the civilian population ends up being more secure as a result of this operation then it will be judged a success, if not then the first big test of Nato's new strategy in Afghanistan will have resulted in failure.

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