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Thousands Flee Ahead of NATO Offensive in Southern Afghanistan

Ayaz Gul | Islamabad 08 February 2010

NATO commanders in Afghanistan say a planned military offensive in a southern Taliban stronghold is meant to defeat the militants and win the support of the population.

U.S and British troops are set to launch what has been described as one of the biggest anti-Taliban offensives of the eight-year-old war.

The assault will target the Afghan town of Marjah in southern Helmand province. It is a major producer of narcotics and a stronghold of Taliban militants in the region.

Hundreds of civilians have fled the town to safer areas in anticipation of the planned offensive, which will include Afghan and NATO troops.

Military commanders say the primary focus of the counter-insurgency strategy is to separate militants from the civilian population to ensure safety for ordinary Afghans once the assault is launched.

The U.S commander of the international force in Afghanistan, General Stanley McCrystal, says the offensive is meant to send a strong signal to the local population that the Afghan government is expanding its security control. The general says the local population has very little freedom and choice while living under Taliban control and drug traffickers.

"So, we are trying to create a situation where we communicate to them that when the government re-establishes security they will have choices. They will have choices on the crops they grow, they will have the ability to move that produce to appropriate markets. They would not be limited to narco-traffickers who can force them into [growing narcotics]. So we are trying to make this not a military operation only but a civilian-military operation because the thing that really is changing is going to be the level of security in the area but the governance," McCrystal said.

Marjah is said to be the last major town under Taliban control in Helmand Province and coalition forces have attacked it in the past. But military officials say a lack of troops kept them from holding the Afghan town. While NATO commanders are reluctant to set a timeframe for the offensive to be completed, they say they expect significant resistance from the Taliban.

The number of NATO-led troops in Afghanistan is expected rise to nearly 150,000 this year under President Barack Obama's troop-surge strategy. The planed assault in the southern Afghan region will be the first anti-Taliban operation in the country to take advantage of recently deployed new foreign soldiers, mostly Americans.

President Obama has pledged to begin the process of withdrawal from Afghanistan by July 2011, making it critical for international forces to show progress on the battlefield. The success of the military strategy will also pave the way for the Afghan government to assume responsibility for security in some provinces this year, a plan announced at the London conference last month.

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