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Page last updated at 11:22 GMT, Thursday, 18 February 2010

Operation Moshtarak: Diary

UK soldiers in Operation Moshtarak

Thousands of US, British and Afghan soldiers have begun a long-anticipated push to clear Taliban forces from Marjah and Nad Ali, in the southern province of Helmand. The BBC's Ian Pannell, embedded with British forces, is keeping a diary about Operation Moshtarak.

NAD ALI / 18 FEBRUARY 2010 / 1300 (0830 GMT)

Winning hearts and minds rather than fighting the insurgents has dominated this first week of Operation Moshtarak.

The Taliban use intimidation, propaganda and attacks; the troops have strength of numbers, money and their own version of propaganda.

Ian Pannell

There have been endless rounds of meetings with turbaned, bearded elders. But winning popular consent is a long, slow process.

Today soldiers tried to fix a water pump in a farmer's field, but as they had also used his farmhouse as a base, he was less than thrilled.

Security trumps all other concerns here, and for many the arrival of troops also signals the arrival of trouble. Many locals have never before seen foreign troops or the Afghan National Army.

One man said he feared for the safety of his family as he thought the presence of soldiers must mean fighting and casualties to come.

NAD ALI / 17 FEBRUARY 2010 / 2200 (1730 GMT)

Overall the troops are happy with the way things have gone and so are the commanders - there has been far less opposition than expected. They have recovered a large amount of weapons and taken a large swathe of territory. On balance things have gone well so far but no-one is under any illusion that the hard work lies ahead.

There has been another series of meetings with village elders to try to convince them of Nato's good intentions. It's about building trust and that often means sitting down on a dusty patch of land with the locals. But there are other projects like building bridges and the "cash for work" programme that aims to employ people who might otherwise be engaged by the Taliban.

The coalition's plan seems to be to keep the Taliban out of populated areas. This is a laudable aim but the Taliban will have a say in that and are engaging in certain propaganda techniques to make locals wary of engaging with the Nato forces.

There is a sense that there might well be fighting in the coming weeks.

NAD ALI / 15 FEBRUARY 2010 / 2120 (1650 GMT)

British troops are still clearing areas now under government control. Patrols have been out sweeping for improvised explosive devices that the Taliban use to ambush UK forces.

But it's the job of reassuring the locals that now seems to occupy most of their energy. Today we travelled with UK and Afghan forces to villages. They sat down on a dusty patch of ground to listen to their complaints and to try to assuage their fears.

One old man said he was glad the Taliban had gone but he was afraid of reprisals. They seemed pleased to see Afghan soldiers; they were emphatic they didn't want police, widely regarded as corrupt. There is little enthusiasm for foreign forces either.

Although the insurgents have fled the area, most worry that they will return, even British commanders are wary insurgents will use their influence to try to intimidate people.

So despite their success in regaining such a large swathe of territory in Nad Ali, the challenges ahead are enormous. Having cleared much of the area, they are now trying to keep the Taliban at bay.

It has taken less than 24 hours to drive the Taliban out of the area. But it will take many months, perhaps years to accomplish their mission. While they have momentum on their side there is still no guarantee of success.

NAD ALI / 15 FEBRUARY 2010 / 1030 (0600 GMT)

The primary focus of Operation Moshtarak is securing the local population. Commanders have urged their troops to use restraint, specifically to avoid civilian casualties even if that means allowing the Taliban to escape.

News of civilian deaths obviously makes that process of winning hearts and minds much harder.

The US military is now investigating what happened in Marjah. But here in northern Nad Ali, UK forces have managed to avoid any casualties among locals and are engaged in what are called reassurance patrols.

Although the area is relatively quiet, threats still remain and teams dedicated to finding roadside bombs are now hard at work.

SHAWAL VILLAGE / 14 FEBRUARY 2010 / 2130 (1700 GMT)

Until yesterday the village of Shawal was the seat of the Taliban shadow government in Nad Ali and the insurgents' flag still flies from a crane here.

Below are a series of large, clear plastic bags sealed and marked "Ministry of Defence Police - Operation Moshtarak".

What they contain is the means to kill and maim dozens of people - wires, pressure plates, batteries, chemicals and detonators.

The 1 Royal Welsh, which made the discovery, says it is a major find - 30-40 improvised explosive devices as well as a significant amount of IED-making equipment. It believes this will have a "very positive effect" on its work here.

A meeting of elders was also held in Shawal. The district governor came to try to convince people to turn their back on the Taliban.

As a gesture of goodwill, a former insurgent captured by the British was handed back to his father.

The UK forces say such acts of symbolism can be used to persuade other fighters that turning from the Taliban is the right thing to do, that the Nato forces come in peace, mean well and look after detainees.

What the people want above all is peace and security and the military are using a host of techniques to give them just that.

But as ever the Taliban will also have a say in what happens next and the UK forces will have to work hard to stop them returning.

NAD ALI / 14 FEBRUARY 2010 / 1030 (0600 GMT)

The "clear" phase of Operation Moshtarak continues. British and Afghan soldiers are searching compounds throughout the area, looking for insurgents and defusing improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which have killed and maimed so many. Despite far less resistance than they had expected, there are still insurgents in the area.

At the same time, they are working to convince locals that they are here to stay. They have been holding meetings with key tribal elders, and some development work, including the building of a bridge, is already under way.

There has also been much talk of reintegration, and commanders want to persuade some insurgents to down their weapons. But no-one is under any illusions that this is a long-term project. Although there is cautious optimism, nobody is talking about victory yet.

NAD ALI / 13 FEBRUARY 2010 / 1630 (1200 GMT)

It's been a very successful day for UK forces. They were able to move into several key villages and establish a foothold.

Broadly speaking they met little resistance. There was some sporadic gunfire. One RPG was fired over the location where we are based. It's fair to say that the Taliban decided to move out of the district.

Unfortunately in terms of the overall strategy here - which is supposed to be population-centred - many civilians have also left. The challenge in the coming days and weeks is to persuade them to come back, to establish meaningful security and then allow meaningful governance to take place.

In the past of course, the Taliban has done exactly the same: they've decided to pull out and come back at a time and a method of their own choosing.

What will make a difference this time is if there is meaningful security established and if the local people feel confident enough to place their faith in local security forces.

This is an operation that has only just begun and it will take weeks and months before we know how successful it has been.

NAD ALI / 13 FEBRUARY 2010 / 1300 (0830 GMT)

There is a reasonably large village here and the objective was to try and take that.

The operation so far has gone better than the commanders on the ground had even hoped. They met very little resistance, they managed to come into the village and entered the compound where they wanted to set up base and things were fairly quiet.

In the last couple of hours the Taliban has responded, there has been an exchange of gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade fired over the base. We know there are perhaps five or six positions where the Taliban are operating.

What's noteworthy here is the lack of population. The vast majority of villagers seem to have left the area to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and Nato troops.

NAD ALI / 13 FEBRUARY 2010 / 0930 (0500 GMT)

There are the best part of 100 British troops here together with the Afghan National Army. They've moved much faster than they expected.

We arrived here under the cover of darkness with a whole series of helicopters ferrying troops out to different parts of the district. We landed at about 0400 and waited in a field until first light then started to move through the village where we are now.

There has been not much sign of insurgents or, indeed, the local population - they seem to have fled in advance.

We have heard a few booms in the distance - we believe those are controlled explosions of IEDs. So far, and it's early days, UK forces seem pleased with how things have gone.

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