KABUL // US marines backed by other foreign and Afghan forces have continued to move deep into Taliban-controlled territory as part of a major assault in the insurgent's southern heartland. The attack on Marjah and the surrounding district of Nad Ali in Helmand province is the biggest operation of the war so far, with more than 15,000 troops deployed.
Since starting early on Saturday, they are now reported to have made significant gains, despite facing some sniper fire and a number of roadside bombs. However, the worst fears of many Afghans were confirmed yesterday after it emerged that 12 civilians had died when Nato rockets missed their target. "Military resistance has vanished and most areas are under our control," Helmand's governor, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, had told journalists earlier.
Operation Moshtarak - which means "together" - had been building up for weeks, with Nato taking the unusual step of warning locals of the mission well in advance. It is the first major offensive since Barack Obama, the US president, announced his new strategy for the war in December. A concerted public relations campaign by the Afghan government and international forces has accompanied the assault, with all keen to stress the importance of taking Marjah back from the Taliban.
Yet for many Pashtuns here in Kabul, the briefings, press conferences and TV images mean little. Sultan Mohammed, a 65-year-old from Paktia complained that foreign troops "tell us that they have come to help us, but they haven't". The events of recent days have not changed his opinion. "In all of Afghanistan we have the same situation as Helmand. Helmand is not the point. All of Afghanistan is at war, all of Afghanistan is in the fire. But this is the decision of Allah."
Most of the fighting in this increasingly bloody conflict takes place in the south and east, where Pashtuns - the country's largest ethnic group - live. Helmand has been the scene of some of the worst bloodshed, with more international soldiers dying there than in any other province. Two others have been added to the list as a result of Operation Moshtarak, one British and one American. Another British Nato soldier was killed yesterday by an explosion in Helmand, Britain's defence ministry said, though it was unrelated to the Marjah operation.
Civilian deaths have also been a regular feature of the military campaign there and the news that 12 innocent people died in a Nato strike will inflame public anger. Nato said the two rockets missed their target and landed on a compound as troops came under fire in Nad Ali. Pashtuns in particular often compare the United States and its allies unfavourably with the brutal Soviet occupation and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has become increasingly vocal in his criticism of their tactics. Yesterday he ordered an investigation into the 12 deaths.
Operation Moshtarak has also displaced hundreds of local families, some of whom have escaped as far afield as Kandahar and Herat. Brig Gen Larry Nicholson, of the US marines, told the Associated Press it might take another "30 days of clearing" before Marjah is safe. Afghan and British soldiers sweeping through villages in the area found improvised explosive devices (IEDs) buried by roadsides, in fields, hanging from trees, even embedded in walls, an Afghan army colonel said.
"In the past 48 hours since we got here we have found and defused around 80 IEDs," Col Shirin Shah told Agence France-Presse in Haji Qari Saheb village. The Afghan army general, Shair Mohammad Zazai, told reporters in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah that 27 militants had been killed. The Taliban, meanwhile, have claimed the operation is "propaganda" for an ailing war effort. For Pashtuns in Kabul at least, life was carrying on as normal yesterday. Nasratullah, a 21-year-old from Logar province, had only heard bits and pieces about the events in Helmand.
"Because Pashtuns are very strong Muslims and they want to stand up for their religion, all the fighting is happening in their areas," he said. This has been billed as a crucial year for the occupation, with Mr Obama's surge of 30,000 troops and his pledge to begin withdrawal in July 2011 putting renewed focus on the war. The commander of US and Nato forces, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has already talked optimistically about halting the deteriorating security situation and making "significant progress" in the country.
The risk is that assaults like Operation Moshtarak could simply alienate a large section of the population that has long felt it is baring the brunt of the conflict. Hayat Gul, a 30-year-old from Paktia, summed up the feelings of many when he said: "They launch operations in Pashtun areas only to kill Pashtuns, innocent Pashtuns who have committed no crimes." @Email:email@example.com