American, Afghan and British troops have seized the largest Afghan town controlled by the Taleban in an offensive seen as a crucial test of the new US strategy to roll back insurgents in Afghanistan.
Waves of helicopters carried US Marines into the city yesterday as part of an offensive by 6,000 troops - the majority Afghan n to capture the town of Marjah in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. British forces landed to the north of Marjah, which US-led forces say they have sealed off to try to trap Taleban forces still inside.
A British soldier from the 1st Battalion, the Grenadier Guards, was killed yesterday in the attack which has so far faced minimal resistance from the Taleban, most of whose fighters appear to have left Marjah. Some 20 Taleban were reported to have been killed and 11 captured. Local people reported that some Taleban had fallen back to the centre of the town which has a population of 80,000. They also claim that the area has been mined.
The assault on Marjah, in an operation called Moshtarak or "Together", has been heavily publicised by US commanders in recent weeks to avoid a fight for the town and also to garner support in the US for President Barack Obama's strategy of increasing US troop levels in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000 men. Some 15,000 troops - American, Afghan, British and Canadian - are involved in the operation in and around Marjah.
Billed as the largest military operation by Western forces since the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001, the offensive is partially aimed at the US and foreign media, which is present in force, to show US and Afghan forces succeeding in taking back territory from the Taleban. An aim of the Afghan "surge", with an extra 30,000 US troops, is to deny the Taleban any sanctuaries inside Afghanistan, particularly in heavily populated areas in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
The US aim is to allow the Afghan government to reassert its authority in Marjah and the well-irrigated opium poppy-growing agricultural land around it. Some 2,000 Afghan police and a team of government officials are waiting to enter the town and its surroundings in the wake of the US-led military assault in which the role of Afghan military forces is continually being emphasised.
The slogan of the new US strategy is "Clear, Hold, Build", and it has the declared intention of not withdrawing after expelling or killing the Taleban, but of winning the support of local people by protecting them and providing services such as roads, clean water and electricity. Major General Nick Carter, the Nato commander in southern Afghanistan, said: "Everybody has to understand that it is not so much the clear phase that is decisive. It is the hold phase."
The weaknesses of the new US military plan were spelled out by the US ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, in leaked cables to President Obama sent last November. In these, General Eikenberry, a former army officer, argues that the sanctuaries which matter most to the Taleban and the highly effective Haqqani network of anti-US insurgents are not in Afghanistan at all but just across the border in Pakistan. The loss of havens such as Marjah may inconvenience the Taleban, but will not cripple their fighting ability so long as they have base areas in the mountains of north-western Pakistan.
A further aim of US-led operations, starting with the capture of Marjah, is to allow the Afghan government to re-establish its authority and win the support of local people. But General Eikenberry says that the central problem is that the Afghan state has neither the will nor the ability to provide security, healthcare, education, justice and infrastructure. "Establishing them requires trained and honest Afghan officials," says General Eikenberry.
"That cadre of Afghan civilians does not exist and would take years to build."
He warns that the US is being sucked into a prolonged and expensive commitment in Afghanistan because its forces will end up acting up in lieu of the Afghan government. The Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, and his circle "do not want the US to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further".
The Afghan police force is particularly feared by Afghan civilians, who view it as corrupt and liable to use violence against people passing through its checkpoints. Its men have been frequently accused of the rape of boys, a tradition which has tended to alienate villagers whose sons have been violated and lead them to support the Taleban.
There is no doubt that the US troop reinforcements will be able to reduce the Taleban grip on the Pashtun provinces of southern Afghanistan. A weakness of the Taleban is that their support is largely confined to the Pashtun community, which makes up only 42 per cent of the Afghan population, and is feared and detested by the Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek and Turcoman populace. But these deep ethnic and sectarian divisions also make it difficult for the central government to recruit the Pashtun into the army and police, which tend to be dominated by the Tajiks who make up a quarter of the Afghan population.
There was little sign yesterday that the Taleban had decided to make a fight for Marjah, a fight which they would be bound to lose militarily but might have staged for symbolic reasons. US commanders said that there were 400 to 1,000 Taleban fighters in the town, but the disparity between the two figures, though dutifully reported by US television, indicates a lack of knowledge about how many Taleban are actually there.
The US wants to avoid using its air force and heavy artillery in Afghanistan to keep down civilian casualties, citing the destruction of the rebel-held Iraqi city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, in November 2004 as an example to avoid. Although the marines captured Fallujah and killed many insurgent fighters, much of the city was ruined and civilian casualties were high.
The US commanders are underlining the role of Afghan troops in the present offensive against Marjah in an effort to avoid Afghans seeing it purely as an operation by foreign troops. The US wants to show to the outside government that foreign forces are in Afghanistan in support of an indigenous government and not as part of a deepening foreign occupation. It is not clear, however, how far this is window dressing during a military action which is being heavily covered by foreign media and how far Afghan military involvement can or will be replicated in future offensives.
An underlying problem for President Obama's plan for a rapid increase in US troop levels to be followed by their reduction in 2011 is that the Taleban could just wait for this to happen. A further difficulty is that success depends on building up the Afghan state and its armed forces at high speed, though the experience of the past eight years shows that this cannot be done. Afghan army recruits are often too malnourished to be able to carry the weight of the body armour which American forces wear. Unlike Iraq, where the government has US$60bn ($86bn) in oil revenues, the Afghan government budget is dependent on foreign aid, making it difficult to build up its own security forces or provide services to its own people.