KABUL // Some 15,000 US, British and Afghan troops have encircled the small town of Marjah, deep in southern Afghanistan, and were ready yesterday to storm the defences of the Taliban's last big stronghold in Helmand province. For days now the onslaught has been expected, said to be the biggest ever coalition operation in the nine-year war. Coalition units have cut off escape routes and skirmished with militants. US marines, who have seized a vital junction heading into Marjah, are under a steady barrage of rocket and mortar fire, as attack helicopters launch missile salvoes at bands of guerrillas harassing the Nato force.
In conjunction with the steady din of guns, loudspeakers yesterday blared entreaties to civilians to stay inside. Nato's top civilian in Afghanistan earlier this week called on people to "keep your heads down". Leaflets yesterday fell on the town's mud-walled houses to promise that the assault will bring "peace and comfort" in the long run. For although tactically it is the Taliban's bomb-making workshops and supply depots that are the goal, the real battlefield is the 80,000 civilians living in Marjah.
Their presence - and the very real possibility of civilian casualties - is upping the stakes of this operation beyond whatever loss or gain that control of a patch of Helmand farmland might bring. Those who can afford to have fled. A grim procession of a perhaps 200 families braved minefields and Taliban checkpoints to reach Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital about 30km to the north-east. One refugee said the Taliban had forbidden people from leaving.
"I tricked the Taliban, moving from one village to the other until I got out of the area," Abdul Samad told Agence France-Presse after arriving in Lashkar Gah early yesterday. "There are large numbers of Taliban all over the place. Sometimes we could see Taliban laying mines on the roads." Those inside Marjah said shops are shuttered and streets deserted. Many inhabitants have stockpiled enough food to last them through the assault - called Operation Moshtarak, the Dari word for "together".
Haji Khodaidad, 43, a resident with a family of 11, said the mood was tense but leaving was as dangerous as staying. "It's not easy for families with women, children and elderly people to move, and most of the roads are planted with landmines that stop them leaving the villages," Mr Khodaidad said. "This is my country. I really feel sad for this fighting and I am sure every single human would feel the same as I feel. I worry a lot."
Bibi Gullana, 38, a mother of four, wept as she described how the impending attack filled her children with dread. "My house is right in the centre of Marjah and my husband has been missing for two months," she said. "There are planes flying above us and now the Taliban are stopping us from leaving for Lashkar Gah and warning us that all the main roads into Marjah have been sown with bombs." Compounding the siege mentality, Taliban militants in Marjah have struck a defiant note, promising to wage a hit and run campaign as international and Afghan forces enter the town.
"We have got experts and brave mujahideen who have nailed the infidels with their unique fighting methods and Allah's help," Mullah Mohammad Basir, 48, a Taliban commander inside the town, told The National yesterday. "God has given an extraordinary gift to the mujahideen for making bombs." Nato commanders acknowledge that thousands of mines, makeshift bombs and booby traps will pose the main threat as they advance though the Taliban defences, and have brought in 72-ton armoured vehicles to help clear a path. "This may be the largest IED threat and largest minefield that Nato has ever faced," Brig Gen Larry Nicholson, commander of the US marines in southern Afghanistan, said.
Mr Basir, the Taliban commander, rejected claims that the insurgents' tactics put civilians at risk. "The Americans have no mercy at all," he said. "Blindly they bomb villages, pretending there are Taliban there and killing civilians. So it makes no difference. Civilians get killed anyway, everywhere. The Americans are always killing civilians and then they report them as Taliban. How can a child or a woman be a Talib?"
Nato remains adamant that advising civilians to stay put is the best course. Time will be of the essence - should the assault get bogged down, the risk to civilians will rise. As the first big test of US Gen Stanley McChrystal's new population-centric strategy, any civilian casualties would be a calamity. * The National