Skimming in low over fields turning green with poppy shoots, helicopters dropped elite US Marine reconnaissance teams behind Taliban lines yesterday as the first week of Operation Moshtarak ground to a close.
With small pockets of militants putting up a dogged resistance across a cluster of villages in Marjah, southern Afghanistan, the US Marines are sending in killer squads to take out the deadly Taliban snipers who work closely with militants springing ambushes.
"The levels of resistance in these areas has increased but not beyond expectation," Major-General Gordon Messenger, the British forces spokesman on Afghanistan, told reporters in London. "We expected, after the enemy had time to catch its breath, they would up the level of resistance, and that's happened."
He discounted suggestions that Marjah town centre had been destroyed by US Marines, insisting that the clearance operation was being conducted in a methodical way to avoid wherever possible the death of civilians and the destruction of their property.
The allies also claimed that security was good enough in some places for stabilisation projects to have started, with two "schools-in-a-box" opened, and repair work on irrigation canals underway.
A specially trained 400-strong Afghan police force was also deploying to the centre of Marjah in a heavily armed convoy from the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, and was to take charge today of areas that have been cleared of booby-traps and homemade bombs. They will then maintain security after allied troops move on in pursuit of Taliban fighters.
Serious questions remain about the coalition's ability to install an effective local government able to restore Afghan sovereignty to the district. "Is [Operation Moshtarak] going to address one of the root causes of this insurgency, bad governance and exclusionary politics?" said one Western analyst in Kabul. "That's at the heart of it. What can the West bring? More resources? Yes. Better politics? Unlikely. At the end of the day, people want local leaders they can trust. That can't be delivered overnight. That takes years. It isn't that this operation is without value but we've got to get away from the idea that we can just parachute in a ready-made government."
For the first time in a week, Afghans in Marjah opened the bullet-riddled shutters of their shops, went to mosque and greeted one another in the street. There has been a mixed reaction to the offensive from civilians, with some applauding the restraint Nato forces have shown. "People are okay with the foreign troops and Afghan National Army," Saleh Mohammad, a 23-year-old student, said in a telephone interview. "They haven't disturbed people in the way we [anticipated] by rushing into houses and searching women." But others were less sanguine. "It is peaceful until the Americans arrive," Zaman Kakar, a 38-year-old farmer, said. "Then the gunfire starts."
Although most of Marjah's population appears to have stayed put during the first week of Operation Moshtarak – billed as the biggest offensive since 2001 – reports are growing that thousands of people have run the gauntlet of minefields and illegal checkpoints to escape the besieged area. At least 6,000 refuges have reached the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, where aid agencies are providing food and shelter but refusing to build camps in an attempt to prevent the exodus becoming permanent. In Nimroz province, a swath of desert to the west, the governor, Ghulam Dastagir Azad said 1,800 refugees had taken shelter in a clutch of abandoned buildings.
Across the border in Pakistan, officials confirmed that a US drone strike had killed the brother of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior Taliban leader. Mohammed Haqqani is said to have been less active than his brother, who pioneered the use of suicide bombers in Afghanistan and is widely perceived as one of the most irreconcilable ideologues in the anti-government camp.
But his death – and the subsequent blow to the Haqqani network, one of the three big insurgent factions waging war against President Hamid Karzai's government – is another propaganda coup for the US, after the capture of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban number two.
Moshtarak in numbers
15,000 troops involved in the push, 4,400 of whom are Afghan.
13 coalition troops killed since the operation began.
120 Taliban killed so far.
1,500 new police dispatched to Marjah.