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Marjah Offensive Puts Afghan Civilians On The Front Line

An Afghan soldier frisks a farmer during a patrol northeast of Marjah.
(RFE/RL) -- NATO and Afghan forces are pushing deep into the town of Marjah -- a major smuggling hub and Taliban stronghold -- on the third day of a large-scale offensive in Helmand Province.

Residents are optimistic that Afghan and NATO troops will bring them security. But locals are also warning troops to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties in their zeal to take control of the Taliban stronghold.

"We want to see you, as you are claiming, bring stability to our region,” said one unidentified farmer, speaking to British troops. “We are happy [at the offensive], but we expect you not to harm us or pain and humiliate us. We expect this and will accept this and it will make us happy."

The farmer's comments highlighted locals' rising concerns a day after 12 civilians were killed when NATO rockets struck a house in Marjah on February 14. The incident led NATO to issue an immediate apology and to promise an investigation, and prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to caution troops to avoid civilian casualties as they take on the Taliban in a populated area.

Western and Afghan troops are claiming steady progress in the offensive dubbed "Moshtarak," or "Together."

On February 14, a spokesman for Helmand's governor said 12 Taliban fighters were killed in overnight fighting in Marjah, close to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Approximately 100,000 people, most of whom remained home in the face of the assault, live in the Marjah and the surrounding area.

Following the civilian deaths, the commander of the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General Stanly McChrystal, suspended the use of the artillery rocket system that caused the casualties. NATO, wary of angering civilians, acceded to their demands by banning house searches.

Residents Flee Fighting

In another break from past practice, the assault was announced ahead of time in local media in an effort to convince civilians to leave the region or to take measures to protect themselves. While thousands of residents did leave, the majority opted to stay behind to guard their homes and property.

While visiting Lashkar Gah, McChrystal and the Afghan interior and defense ministers sought the help of Marjah tribal elders in tracking Taliban insurgents ensconced in the area.

Before the assault, McChrystal had tried to win over local sentiment by promising "a government in a box, ready to roll in" soon after the end of hostilities in Marjah. In brief remarks to journalists today, he tried to reassure locals while lauding the progress made so far.

"When President Karzai approved the conduct of this operation, he gave us some very specific guidance, and that guidance was to continue to protect the people of Afghanistan," McChrystal said. "And so this operation is being done with that in mind. And while this is an Afghan-led operation, I think it highlights the special partnership that we have developed that I am very proud of."

The push into Marjah has been hampered by Taliban snipers and hundreds of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) scattered in fields and dirt roads around Marjah. While the Taliban are putting up considerable resistance in Marjah, NATO troops on the ground reportedly anticipated worse.

British Major Mike Taylor, squadron commander of the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, is accompanying a convoy to secure supplies to Marjah though the neighboring Nad-e Ali district. He told Reuters TV that despite small-arms fire and IEDs, the enemy attacks were limited.

"I think the Taliban have been overwhelmed by the simultaneity and the surprise of our move in," Taylor said. "To be honest, it is pretty much the enemy course of action we expected to see them take. Initially, overwhelmed by the size and shock of ISAF move into the area, we expect melt into the population for the time being until they get a feeling for where our extent lies. Then we may see some probing of our forward lines from that point onwards."

Operation Moshtarak is expected to take one month. Gulab Mangal, the governor of Helmand, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that soon after the military actions wind down, programs for reconstruction, development, and improved governance will be unveiled to secure "permanent peace and stability."

"The authority of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan will be extended so that we can secure conditions for talking to the opponents," Mangal said. "These are the goals that we are working toward in this operation."