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Page last updated at 22:08 GMT, Friday, 12 February 2010

Afghan conflict reaches critical juncture

British soldiers from Royal Welsh Fusiliers (file photo)
Afghan forces will need to fill the security vacuum and keep the Taliban at bay

By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Helmand province

"Operation Moshtarak will mark the start of the end of the insurgency."

With those words, Brig James Cowan, commander of British forces in Helmand province signalled the start of the largest military operation in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Thousands of US, UK and Afghan forces, supported by Danes and Estonians are now moving by land and air into parts of Nad Ali district, which have long been in insurgent hands.

Moshtarak means 'together' and this will be the first major operation to have Afghan forces sharing the burden of the fighting

Four thousand British troops, supported by 1,650 Afghan servicemen will operate in the northern part of area.

The white flag of the Taliban flies from a crane raised above the town of Showal in the north. It is the seat of the shadow government and will be a key objective for British forces led by 1st Battalion, The Royal Welsh.

To the south-west lies the area of Marjah. Military planners believe it is home to one of the largest concentrations of insurgents in Afghanistan, and it is here where thousands of US marines are operating.

Nad Ali is now the epicentre of the so-called US troop "surge" and the counter-insurgency plan laid out by the commander of both the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) and US Forces Afghanistan (USFor-A), Gen Stanley McChrystal.

'Helping Afghan people'

"Soon we will clear the Taliban from its safe havens in central Helmand. Where we go, we will stay. Where we stay, we will build," says Brig Cowan.

Residents of Marjah flee ahead of the offensive (12 February 2010)
Residents of Marjah fear being trapped between troops and militants

He addressed hundreds of troops assembled on a dusty patch of land adjacent to where a vigil had just been held for the latest three British soldiers to be killed in Afghanistan.

L/Cpl Dale Vincent of 1 Royal Welsh is just 21 years old and already on his third tour of Afghanistan. He misses his grandmother, who follows the news closely and worries that Dale is in danger. But he is confident that Moshtarak will go well.

"We're helping the Afghan people and it keeps the terrorists from our back home. We all knew Afghanistan was going to be dangerous before we came, but this op is not going to be any more dangerous than before; it's just on a bigger scale," he says.

"Home" is the word you hear most often. L/Cpl Stephen Courtney, from Swansea, has a two-year-old son and is engaged to be married this August.

"I try not to think of the dangers. I just can't wait to go home and see all the family and friends," he says.

Menace of IEDs

And then there are the young ones, the 18-year-olds who look barely old enough to be away from home. Rhys James from Ebbw Vale is one of them.

"It's been frightening sometimes, but all the training kicks in," he says.

US helicopter south of Marjah, in Helmand province (12 February 2010)
Isaf has so far failed to stop the momentum of the insurgents

What really scares him is being the "vallon man", the soldier at the front of every patrol who must sweep the ground with a metal detector for Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), the home-made bombs that have killed and maimed so many here.

"Sweeping is the scary bit. It could be an IED."

The McChrystal doctrine sets out to protect the population rather than trying to defeat the Taliban, but of course the insurgents will have their own response planned for what has been a heavily trailed operation.

In a sombre warning, Brig Cowan told his troops: "We offer an open hand of friendship to those who do not wish to fight. For those who do not shake our hand, they will find it closed into a fist. They will be defeated."

Casualties are expected and UK Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has cautioned people to expect bloodshed.

"This is not in any way a safe environment and it doesn't matter how much kit and equipment we provide for people, we can never entirely make these operations risk-free," he said.

Halting Taliban momentum

It may be the largest operation to date, but it is unlikely to be the last.

The Taliban have shown they are more than capable of avoiding direct confrontation, disappearing seamlessly into the local population, only to counter at a time and with a method of their own choosing.

French soldiers train ahead of Operation Moshtarak
International troops will work alongside the Afghan National Army

The last nine years have seen a continual decline in security in Afghanistan; thousands of civilians and hundreds of foreign troops have been killed, and in that time the Taliban have re-grouped and grown into a formidable guerrilla force.

The Isaf mission in Afghanistan has so far failed to stop the momentum of the insurgents.

From London to Washington, public support for the conflict is slipping and with elections beckoning in both Britain and America, the conflict has reached a critical juncture.

There have been important successes in towns like Garmsir and Nad Ali district centre, but the international forces have so far failed to link up enough areas to halt the Taliban's momentum. That is the ultimate challenge.

Moshtarak means "together" and this will be the first major operation to have Afghan forces sharing the burden of the fighting.

What has now begun is the "clear" phase, what must follow are the "hold" and "build" stages.

It will require those Afghan forces to fill the security vacuum and keep the Taliban at bay. Then locals must be persuaded to throw in their lot with the government.

This operation is the largest so far in this conflict and it is also the most ambitious. Ultimately it must lead to something most Afghans have never known; peace.

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