US and allied commanders in Afghanistan are preparing for the biggest battle of the eight-year war in the town of Marja situated in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province. Its outcome will reveal the chances of success for President Obama's revamped Afghan strategy. The imminent Operation Moshtarak, which in Dari translates to Operation 'Together', will mobilise a force of up to 15,000 British, American, Canadian and Afghan troops to storm Marja, a town of 80,000 people and a Taliban stronghold in the country's south.
The operation has been under way for several weeks, with preparations for the assault intensifying. Afghan and Western forces have announced their plans to the local population while moving into position. NATO command in Kabul put out a statement warning Afghan civilians in the town to remain in their homes once the assault is under way. No date for the main attack has been announced, but all signs indicate it will come soon.
The publicity surrounding the upcoming offensive has given the Taliban time to bolster their defences in the town which are believed to include roadside bombs, mines and other improvised explosive devices hidden in surrounding irrigation ditches. An estimated 1,000 or more Taliban fighters are thought to be in the town. On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi vowed that the US and Afghan military forces will face a major battle to retake Marja.
Afghan officials have said that they are prepared to support civilians fleeing the conflict. NATO and provincial authorities say fewer around 300 families have fled so far whilst the Red Crescent relief organisation says it has counted at least 450 families in Lashkar Gah, Helmand's provincial capital. The high number of civilians still thought to be in the town is provoking fears of heavy collateral damage. The International Committee of the Red Cross has said that 'increasing numbers of war casualties' have already begun arriving at a clinic it runs in the town.
The openSecurity verdict: Operation Moshtarak will be the first big show of force since President Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan last December. NATO and ISAF forces are under pressure to achieve decisive military gains this year to turn the tide in the war, before troops begin to withdraw next year. The assault on Marja, a densely populated warren of desert canals, will demonstrate NATO commander Stanley McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy, which emphasizes seizing control of population centres. The town's role as an infiltration route for fighters coming from Pakistan and centre of opium production, which provides much of the tax revenue that has fueled the insurgency, makes it particularly significant.
The pacification of the area is seen as critical for reversing Taliban gains in and around Kandahar, the country's second largest city. Unlike an operation last July to wrest control of key towns along the Helmand river which produced mixed results, the upcoming mission involves a significant number of Afghan army and police units. Military officials have said that each marine battalion will be partnered with an Afghan battalion. Cooperation with Afghan soldiers has its drawbacks, particularly as drug abuse is proving difficult to curb among the new recruits. The BBC's security correspondent Frank Gardner, reporting from regional headquarters in Kandahar in the build-up to Operation Moshtarak, says NATO commanders are aware of the Afghan police's 'sometimes dubious reputation' and plan to monitor their performance. Many still fear Afghan security forces will be unable to ensure the long-term security and stability of the area.
NATO hopes to showcase Marja as part of its new strategy to 'clear, hold, and build.' The post-invasion plan consists of holding the town, engaging in reconstruction and providing jobs to act as a buffer against the return of Taliban insurgents. The US government has designated a civilian reconstruction team to move into Marja once the town is secured. The Americans are working to encourage Afghans to serve as civil servants and are looking to increase the monthly salary for such personnel from $60 to about $300. The American state department and USAID plan to rehabilitate the canal network, educate farmers in modern agricultural practices and encourage them to grow wheat instead of cultivating poppies.
Reconstruction efforts however will rely on the cooperation of the civilian population in Marja, and the urban offensive has prompted warnings of a high civilian death toll. Rights groups have said that since NATO has encouraged people to stay and 'keep their heads down' when the conflict begins, it bears an additional legal and moral responsibility to avoid heavy fighting that would cause civilian casualties.
That some Taliban insurgents will seek sanctuary in civilian areas, or disguise themselves as civilians, remains a very real possibility and one that will require careful distinctions to be made by military personnel. The operation however will be a great test for foreign forces and their ability to win the hearts and minds of Afghans. Whilst the number of civilians killed by NATO troops declined in 2009, significant allegations over the killing of children in east Afghanistan as well as an airstrike that reportedly killed a significant number of civilians in Kunduz (north Afghanistan) have embarrassed the coalition and infuriated Afghans.
Already critics have made comparisons between the imminent attack on Marja and the US offensive in Fallujah (Iraq) against Sunni insurgents in 2004 which was marked by controversy and accusations of breaches of the rules of engagement. The early announcement of the impending assault on Marja by NATO, however, has meant that many hundreds of people have fled Marja though a high number still remain.
By advertising Operation Moshtarak, NATO commanders hope the more casual insurgent fighters will desert the area rather than choose to stand and fight 15,000 well-armed troops. In spite of this however, significant casualties are expected among NATO forces as many hundreds of insurgents ideologically committed to the Taliban’s cause have, according to witnesses, dug in and are preparing to fight. British Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has called on the British public to 'hold its resolve' in anticipation of a rise in the death toll among troops serving in Afghanistan. The outcome of the assault on Marja will be crucial in shaping domestic public opinion about war.
On Wednesday, the National Audit Office (NAO) revealed that military hospitals in Afghanistan and Britain are under mounting pressure coping with rising casualties in Helmand province. The spending watchdog said the UK military hospital in Helmand, Camp Bastion, was operating at close to full capacity and predicted it would come under more strain as fighting escalated.
Analysts are warning of an intensely bloody battle in Marja. Belts of improvised explosive devices are believed to be buried along all major approaches to the town and are, according to experts, increasingly difficult to detect. Witnesses have said that the Taliban are bringing in weapons supplies, and that many fighters are locals, making the task of distinguishing between the people and insurgents all the more difficult.
Protestors clash in Sri Lankan capital
Clashes broke out between pro-government supporters and opposition activists demonstrating against the arrest of defeated presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka in Colombo on Wednesday. Scuffles began outside the country's Supreme Court, where thousands of opposition supporters gathered to protest the arrest of Fonseka, the former army chief who was taken into custody by the authorities on Monday on sedition charges. The opposition maintain that the detention is illegal and politically motivated, and complain of harassment ahead of new parliamentary elections scheduled for 8 April. Yesterday, opposition members said they would launch a series of country-wide protests following Fonseka’s detention.
Government supporters who decided to hold a counter-rally at the Supreme Court threw rocks and chased away opposition protestors, while police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds. Wednesday’s clashes are the first salvo in what looks to be a violent run-up to the national parliamentary poll.
Sudan-Chad deal raises hope for an end to Darfur insecurity
Sudan and Chad have agreed to end their proxy wars and work together to rebuild border areas, a move that has raised hopes for an end to the conflict in Darfur. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir said a visit by Chad's President Idriss Deby had 'put an end to all the problems' between the two neighbours. Negotiations between the two countries have led to the announcement of a joint project to develop their common border, a move seen aimed at bolstering security and credibility ahead of impending polls in both nations. Last month, the countries agreed to joint military patrols in the area either side of the border, and to remove the rebel troops they have influence over from the frontier.
The prospect for peace and normalisation of ties between Khartoum and Ndjamena has been welcomed internationally. In Jeddah the head of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, expressed 'great satisfaction' with Deby's visit. Meanwhile, US envoy Scott Gration said the historic moves could end the 'cycle of insecurity' in Darfur, the war-torn region of western Sudan which borders Chad.
Israeli war planes bomb southern Gaza
Israeli war planes hit southern Gaza with missiles in response to rocket fire from Palestinian militants, the Israeli military said on Wednesday. The airstrikes reportedly hit Gaza's disused Yasser Arafat airport near the town of Rafah. There were no reports of casualties.
Elsewhere, one of the four investigators who comiled the UN Goldstone Gaza report, which accuses both Hamas and Israel of war crimes, has claimed that Hamas rocket fire leading up to the conflict did not justify the claim of self-defence by Israel. Desmond Travers made the remarks, along with refutations of IDF photographs showing weapons being stored in mosques, in a new report published by the Jerusalem Center for Public affairs, which has offered several critiques of the Goldstone report. Travers argued that Hamas had sought 'a continuation of the cease-fire' prior to Israel's offensive in Gaza.
Iran makes arrests before revolution day rally
Iran has arrested several people who were preparing to disrupt rallies on 11 February, the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution in 1979, according to police on Wednesday. In a clear warning to opposition supporters planning new protests, the authorities have said that a firm response will be delivered if attempts were made to hijack state-sponsored celebrations of the anniversary. The establishment is hoping the show of unity will 'punch the faces' of its Western enemies. Opposition leaders however have called on supporters to take to the streets on Thursday, raising the risk of renewed violence eight months after a disputed election plunged Iran into crisis.
Yesterday, Iran convicted an opposition activist on charges relating to the country's post-election turmoil and sentenced him to death, bringing the number of protestors facing the death penalty to ten. The New York based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran said compiled figures show that at least 1,000 people have been detained in Iran since the unrest began, but that the actual number is likely to be higher. Meanwhile, the opposition Kaleme website said yesterday that 116 university professors in Tehran had sent a letter to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asking for help in putting an end to arrests of students and other academics.
British judges order release of secret torture evidence
The British Foreign Secretary David Miliband lost his appeal court bid to prevent senior judges disclosing secret information relating to torture allegations in the case of Binyam Mohamed. Wednesday's ruling means the British government will be forced to reveal evidence of MI5 and MI6 complicity in the torture of British resident Binyam Mohamed. Britain's senior judges rejected Miliband's claims, backed by the US government, that disclosure of a seven-paragraph summary of classified CIA information showing what British agents knew of Mohamed's torture would threaten transatlantic intelligence cooperation and therefore endanger Britain's national security.
The paragraphs read in court disclosed that Mohamed had been subjected to 'cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment' including sleep deprivation, shackling and threats resulting in mental stress and suffering. The disputed paragraphs have now been published on the Foreign Office website. Mohamed was detained in 2002 in Pakistan, where he was questioned by an unnamed MI5 officer now being investigated by the police. Subsequently, the US flew him to Morocco, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, where he alleges he was tortured with the knowledge of British agencies.
Nigerian footage shows uniformed men shooting unarmed men
Footage aired on Tuesday by Al-Jazeera shows Nigerian police and military units carrying out extra-judicial killings last year in the aftermath of clashes with members of a Muslim group in northern Nigeria. The footage shows two uniformed men forcing seven young men to lie face-down at the side of a busy road, before the uniformed officers fire into the men's backs.
An estimated 1,000 people were killed when Nigerian authorities cracked down on Boko Haram in Borno, Yobe, Kano and Bauchi states in July and August 2009. The footage has reinforced claims that many of the deaths occurred after the fighting was over when elements of the security forces staged a follow-up operation in which house-to-house searches were conducted and individuals were selected at random and detained for questioning.