Page last updated at 10:14 GMT, Thursday, 25 February 2010

'Great deal' of progress in Op Moshtarak in Afghanistan

Maj Gen Nick Carter, commander of troops in southern Afghanistan, updates BBC defence correspondent Caroline Wyatt about progress in Operation Moshtarak.

He says the forces are making a "great deal" of progress in Marjah, describes how local Taliban have been changing sides and the challenge of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

OPERATION'S PROGRESS
Members of the F Company, 1 Royal Welsh take position during operation "Moshtarak"

The reality of Op Moshtarak is that it started to happen about three months ago, when we started to shape the environment to get the political context properly set, and the planning in process and to get the population ready for what was coming.

So it has been going on for a long time, and my expectation is that it will go on in one way or another for three months, because it probably takes you that long to get a sense whether or not the population is entirely certain that the Afghan government is making the commitment to it that it expects.

RETURN OF POPULATION

If you go on the ground to the top end of the Nad Ali district, you will find there are a lot of people, and funnily enough they are quite prosperous as it's a very well-irrigated area and they are growing things at the moment. You can get a lot of crops out of Helmand.

And what they are really looking for is security. And the sense we get now, two weeks after we inserted, they are seeing a bit of security coming and that's proving to be successful, and as a consequence the population is more oriented more towards its government's forces than perhaps it would have been three weeks ago.

ON LOCAL TALIBAN

A lot of it is local fighters who have been intimidated by the Taliban, and local fighters who have got not much else to do, and who are therefore looking to earn some money.

We have found mosques that are full of IED factories, and I'm afraid this is a feature of this campaign - that the insurgent is using that as his weapons system

And if you can provide them with an offer that is better than the Taliban might give them, you discover pretty quickly that they come across.

And what is fascinating is the number of people who are coming forward to look for cash for work and looking to do different sorts of projects and to look to the sort of services that their government can produce.

So my sense is that we are making a great deal of progress in Marjah. It will take a while. We always thought it would take at least 30 days until we had the sort of security we wanted to have established in the longer term, so we are really only on day+11 or 12 at the moment.

AFGHAN GOVERNMENT'S ABILITY TO HOLD AND BUILD

One of the most striking things is how the Afghans have been involved in it and the extent to which they have stepped up to the plate. Because what we did with Op Moshtarak was put Governor Mangal in Helmand at the tip of the spear.

It was he who made the plan for how Nad Ali would be stabilised, it was he who drew down line support from the ministries in Kabul. My sense is that the governance piece for this has been well thought through, and therefore I am entirely confident that we will get the process of hold happening here.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

All civilian casualties are tragic, and are counter-productive for us. Because what we are seeking to do is to protect the population. And if you are seeking to do that, anything to do with civilian casualties is inevitably counter-productive.

You have to be circumspect about your use of weaponry - and that is a huge feature of what has been happening in Nad Ali and in Marjah. There, what is happening is that some very brave people, the ANSF and the US Marine Corps, have been acting there without the use of the third dimension - ordnance from the air - and are principally using small arms.

And as a consequence they have perhaps gone slower than many expected. But that is probably the way you must fight what people call 'war amongst the people'.

PROGRESS AGAINST IEDs

It's a multifaceted approach. In Marjah, what we have found is barrier minefields almost on the scale of the sort of thing we used to train for in the Cold War. So they have to be cleared in a very systematic fashion.

I firmly believe if we can create momentum and fundamentally if we can seize the initiative, we can make this year more successful than years hitherto

There have also been some pretty sophisticated and nefarious sort of ambushes created and indeed things have been laid in strange places - on top of the roofs of the bazaars, we have found IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

We have found mosques that are full of IED factories, and I'm afraid this is a feature of this campaign - that the insurgent is using that as his weapons system, and we are getting better every day at how we detect them, and what our tactics and procedures should be.

And of course we are well equipped now in terms of in our vehicles, and our clearance systems, and although there will be casualties, we are getting better at each day at what we do with this.

LEVEL OF TROOP CASUALTIES

We were prepared for the worst case, but I think in terms of the way this has gone so far, I think it's better than the worst case would have been.

Every casualty is a tragedy for me, and if you are the commander who makes the plan to do these sorts of operations, the one thing that keeps you up at night is casualties because you worry that your plan is perhaps not being effective.

BBC POLL ON PUBLIC SUPPORT

The poll said two thirds of the British public thought the war was unwinnable and British troops should not stay.

I have not studied the analysis of this poll. But I don't get the sense the British public is not foursquare behind what we are doing, and what our armed forces are up to. And certainly not what the mail and the parcels that arrived at Christmas made me think.

What we have to do is show the public we can succeed and I think that Op Moshtarak gives us a few ideas, and I think that in three months' time, if Moshtarak has made the sort of commitment to the people that we think it's going to make, then maybe things will change slightly.

TIPPING POINT MOMENT?

I don't think this is a tipping point at all. I think the way General Stanley McChrystal would conceive what we are doing in Helmand at the moment is to see it as the first piece of creating momentum with the additional resources that have been made available to him by President Barack Obama before Christmas time.

And I, as commander, am in the fortunate position of having far more resources than any of my predecessors ever had - and if you use those resources reasonably well, then there is a chance you will create some momentum, and that is what this is all about.

HELICOPTERS

Helicopters were not at all in short supply when we inserted for Op Moshtarak - and in a sense that was one of the more impressive things about what took place 11 days ago. We had 60 helicopters involved in inserting a huge amount of Afghan and coalition forces, and I didn't want for anything.

ON BEING A REALIST

I am a realist. But I firmly believe if we can create momentum and fundamentally if we can seize the initiative, we can make this year more successful than years hitherto.



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