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Petraeus: Marjah start of long campaign

US marines on the outskirts of Marjah (21 February 2010)
Gen Petraeus said the US public should expect further losses in Afghanistan

The current offensive around the southern Afghan town of Marjah is the initial operation of a long campaign, the head of US Central Command says.

Gen David Petraeus told NBC that the offensive was part of a revised strategy for combating insurgents that would probably last "12 to 18 months".

He said Taliban resistance to Operation Moshtarak, which is in its second week, had been "formidable" but "disjointed".

Nato commanders have said it may take another month to fully secure Marjah.

Afghan police have already been deployed in areas recaptured from the Taliban, as part of a plan to put the area under the control of the local authorities.

So far, 12 Nato personnel have been killed in the offensive, which involves 15,000 Nato and Afghan troops and is the biggest operation against insurgents in Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion.

Another three personnel were reported dead on Sunday in unrelated incidents in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Their nationalities were not given.

'Initial salvo'

Gen Petraeus said the US public should expect further losses, much like there were following the so-called troop surge in Iraq.

Gen David Petraeus (file)
We have spent the last year getting the inputs right in Afghanistan... Now we are starting to see the first of the output
Gen David Petraeus

"When we go on the offensive… they are going to fight back. And we are seeing that in Marjah. We will see that in other areas. But we are going after them across the spectrum," he told NBC's Meet The Press programme.

"The reality is that it is hard, but we are there for a very important reason."

The general, who oversees the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said that in Marjah there had been "tough fighting going on without question".

"[The Taliban] are formidable. They are a bit disjointed at this point in time. The way the operation was conducted leaped over some of them."

He said it was important to realise that Operation Moshtarak marked the beginning of what would be a 12 to 18-month campaign, as mapped out by the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal.

"We have spent the last year getting the inputs right in Afghanistan, getting the structure and organizations necessary for a comprehensive civil-military campaign, putting the best leaders we can find in charge of those," he said.

"Now we are starting to see the first of the output. The Marjah operation is the initial salvo," he added.

'Squeezed'

Earlier, US marines and Afghan soldiers converged on a western quarter of Marjah, where more than 40 Taliban fighters were believed to be holed up.

"They are squeezed," Lt Col Brian Christmas, commander of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, told the Associated Press.

Afghan civilians on the outskirts of Marjah (21 February 2010)
Afghanistan's president has warned Nato to protect civilians in Marjah

"It looks like they want to stay and fight but they can always drop their weapons and slip away. That's the nature of this war."

At a briefing in London on Thursday, Maj Gen Gordon Messenger said the level of resistance had increased, but not beyond expectation.

"We expected after the enemy had time to catch its breath, they would up the level of resistance, and that's happened," he said.

But the Taliban's lack of co-ordination was allowing "clearance" operations to proceed systematically, avoiding as far as possible civilian casualties and damage to property, the general added.

Around 100 elite Afghan police have been deployed in the area, with more to follow. Local officials said they would take over security once Taliban fighters and improvised explosive devices have been cleared.

Once the town is secure, Nato plans to put in place a civilian Afghan administration, restore public services and pour in aid to win the support of the local population and prevent the Taliban returning.

On Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai urged Nato to make sure it protected civilians during the operation after the alliance said its troops had killed one in the Marjah area, bringing the civilian death toll to at least 16.

Map of Helmand Province and key locations



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