British troops move on Taliban stronghold

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The Independent Online

The mission to capture Marja, the largest Taliban strongholds in Helmand, has begun with British forces clearing insurgent positions in an airbourne assault.

The operation, the biggest in southern Afghanistan since the invasion nine years ago, is a key part of Nato plans to take over enemy positions before opening negotiations with elements of the Taliban.

The assault on Marjah, an area with a population of more than 125,000, will be led by US Marines. It is the second large scale offensive carried out by American forces since President Obama authorised the sending of up to 30,000 extra troops. Just before Christmas the Marinec captured Naw Zad, a Taliban bomb and drugs centre.

The operation, codenamed Mastarak, Pashtun for 'forward together', will involve around 6,000 American, British and Afghan troops. Nato has made little attempt to keep the offensive secret, part of a strategy of persuading Taliban fighters to withdraw in the face of overwhelming firepower.

Lieutenant General Nick Parker, deputy to General Stanley McChrystal, the US head of Nato forces in Afghanistan, said he "hoped" that the Taliban would not engage in fighting, but all the indications were that there would be stiff resistance.

Major General Gordon Messenger, a former commander of Britain's Helmand task force and part of the Afghan strategy team based in London said " The plan is to do it in the least aggressive way possible. Clearance operations by their very nature are high risk. We can't discount a fight and we can't discount casualties."

The first wave of attacks was carried out by the Grenadier Guards battlegroup, with support from the Royal Welsh and the Coldstream Guards on an area south of Nad-e-Ali known as Five-Way junction.

There are believed to be an insurgent force of around 6,000 in the area. Intelligence reports have indicated that the Taliban have laid out roadside bombs and mines in anticipation of the offensive, there are also reports of an extensive network of underground tunnels used for movement of men and weapons.

The US Marines found similar defences at Naw Zad where the Taliban fighters put up initial resistance before mostly disappearing among the local population. The 'low level' fighters who were captured were freed by the Americans as part of their hearts and minds operations.

Speaking of Marja, General William Mayville, deputy chief of staff for strategy at Nato headquarters in Kabul said "It's going to be a difficult task clearing it but that's exactly where we've got to go. You have criminal entrepreneurs and a heavy narcotics problem in there. It's a very toxic cocktail of issues and we will have to go in and clear that out.

"If a lot of the insurgents leave now, it could all happen without one shot being fired. Or it could be very long and drawn out. But I'm confident we'll get there."

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