LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- The scene in the Bolan Desert on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Afghanistan's volatile southern Helmand Province, is heart-wrenching. The frail faces of hungry children shivering in the desert cold and their desperate parents await help, which has yet to appear.
They are among the thousands of newly displaced civilians who have fled Operation Moshtarak or "Together," the biggest NATO and Afghan offensive to date. The operation in southern Helmand Province aims to regain control of Marjah, an agricultural town in Nad-e Ali district southwest of Lashkar Gah.
Some 100,000 famers call Marjah home and so far nearly 10,000 of them have been registered as displaced by the offensive. Most fled Marjah before the beginning of the assault on February 13 and have personally managed to find assistance among friends and relatives.
But the number of displaced is now rapidly rising as streams of newcomers join the desperate crowd in Lashkar Gah. Today, the newly displaced could be seen arguing with the members of an Afghan government-appointed registration commission whose documentation can bring them food, blankets, and other assistance.
While waiting for registration, one middle-aged man, whose family made the perilous 30-kilometer journey from Marjah to Lashkar Gah on February 18, says privately that it is impossible to stay in their hometown. Yet, since they have been on the move, they have yet to receive any help:
"The fighting and bombing was going on and we couldn't find anything because the shops were closed," the man says. "We arrived last evening and so far have not received the registration forms. Now I am waiting to receive those registration forms."
He and his family are one of the 500 newly arrived families who have fled Marjah in the past couple days. They not only complain they have received little assistance but say members of the local Afghan commission tasked with registering them sometime distribute the aid intended for them to friends and relatives in Lashkar Gah.
Karim Khan an official of the refugee department in Helmand who is also a member of the registration commission, rejects such charges. He tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that officials are doing their best to help the newly displaced.
Khan adds that the commission only registers people introduced by a six-member committee of elders from Marjah and Nad-e Ali.
"I have representatives from 10 different departments and aid agencies," Khan says. "When somebody comes to us, I tell them that I don't know you and I cannot register you on my own. And I can only register people recommended by elders who confirm that they are from that area."
Operation Moshtarak is making steady progress despite the death of four NATO troops on February 18. But Major General Nick Carter, the British commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan, told reporters today that allied forces might take three more weeks to completely secure the Marjah area.
Officials say allied forces have taken control of the main roads, bridges, and government centers in Marjah, but reports say allied forces continue to face hidden bombs and militant gunfire.
Observers suggest that the Taliban militants are likely to melt away in front of the superior NATO firepower. But it is the hearts and minds of the civilian population that may prove critical to whether Operation Moshtarak is won or lost.