Taliban forced to retreat as battle for Marjah intensifies

Nato commanders warn latest offensive could last several more weeks
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The Independent Online

Civilians in the southern Afghan town of Marjah said fighting there continued yesterday at "maximum intensity" as Taliban insurgents were squeezed into ever-smaller pockets.

Despite encountering fierce resistance from small bands of guerrillas, the allies claim most of the town in Helmand province is under the control of Nato and Afghan troops. They are unable to take the main bazaar, however, having been forced back twice by heavy fire from Taliban sharp shooters.

"The foreign troops have control of all the main roundabouts," Ajmal Gullai, a 33-year-old taxi driver who lives in Marjah, told The Independent by phone.

Like many other civilians in the town Mr Gullai has remained indoors, terrified that any attempt to venture out will be met with a bullet or a bomb.

"We're learning to recognise the different kinds of gunfire and can tell who is firing what," he said. "The Taliban use small weapons like AK-47s, PKM machine guns and rocket launchers. Most of the fire is coming from foreign troops."

Although progress is slow, with British soldiers in the Nad-e-Ali area engaged in clearing minefields, there was a sense of optimism among Afghan troops, who are involved in unprecedented numbers.

"Almost all Nad-e-Ali and Marjah had been taken", General Aminullah Patiani, the senior Afghan officer in Operation Moshtarak, claimed.

Nato commanders struck a more cautious tone, warning that fighting could drag on for several more weeks, and that success or failure could only be judged many months from now if Marjah inhabitants gain access to schools, hospitals and basic government services. And a day after 12 Afghan civilians were killed by two US rockets in Helmand, Nato admitted that an airstrike aimed at insurgents yesterday killed five more Afghans in Kandahar. The deaths, unrelated to the Marjah offensive, came after a joint Nato and Afghan patrol spotted people digging a trench in Zhari district and believed they were planting an improvised explosive device.

The news will only make the Afghan government's effort to entice Taliban foot soldiers to trade in their guns for jobs and stable lives harder. Afghan officials have been seeking to drive a wedge between home-grown militants, who they want to reintegrate, and foreign fighters, who they would prefer to kill.

"I want to call on all Afghan Taliban, the ones who are besieged or maybe hiding ... put down your arms and join our reconciliation programme, take part with us in the rebuilding of our country," the Defence minister Rahim Wardak said yesterday. But analysts warned that the programme, outlined at the London conference last month, has yet to be drawn up in any detail.

And it is in the reintegration of local fighters and establishing effective local government that victory is likely to be decided – and it is where Nato is taking its biggest gamble. Marjah's fate will be down to Afghan administrators, Afghan police and Afghan political will.

The Washington Post has reported that officials had drafted changes to Afghanistan's election law that would remove foreign members from the anti-fraud watchdog, limit the number of women MPs and increase the barriers to office. If the President Hamid Karzai pushes the amendments into law, he would be breaking promises to Afghan citizens and his Western allies.

As one British soldier died from wounds suffered clearing a roadside bomb in Helmand – the 261st British soldier killed since 2001 – the second incident of civilian casulaties in as many days risked further harm to public support.

But Abdul Wali, a 27-year-old student said that "the foreign troops are being very careful to avoid killing civilians in Marjah, which is great and people do appreciate that".

The Taliban sought to exploit the first rocket attack, announcing on their website that, "The infidels promised no civilians would be killed but so far 17 civilians have been killed by America's rocket attack, 12 from one family".

Noting that Monday was the 20th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet soldiers from Afghanistan, they also predicted that history would repeat itself.

"Twenty years after the defeat of the Red Army, today Obama, also in Afghanistan, has given one-and-a-half years to the commander of foreign invaders, McChrystal, to prove his success against the Islamic Emirate .... The current occupiers of Afghanistan, like the Red Army, will face defeat."

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