Operation Moshtarak: Which way the war in Afghanistan? | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 22.02.2010
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Operation Moshtarak: Which way the war in Afghanistan?

Over a week into the joint allied offensive in Helmand province, NATO commanders have been cautioning that the true success of the mission cannot be fully gauged for months to come and indeed possibly beyond that.

marines marching

The operation to flush out the Taliban is going well however there's still a long way to go

Thus far the allied advance has suffered negligible losses. Although there have been vast numbers of improvised explosive devices left by Taliban bomb makers keeping military engineers busy defusing them, on the face of things the allied drive is going as well as could be expected.

Yet the Taliban guerrilla formations in what has long been their stronghold and scene of the fiercest fighting in the entire campaign, have not really shown themselves or offered much of a fight, despite defiant posturing ahead of the mission kicking off. It would seem that in classic guerrilla fashion, the Taliban faced with overwhelming allied firepower and numbers, refused to grant NATO and the Afghan National Army a conventional battle they would surely lose and simply retreated and melted away either over the border into Pakistan or in the midst of the local population.

In 2006 during the Canadian-led Operation Medusa, the lone but aggressive and skilled Canadian combat brigade was able to lure the Taliban into a conventional showdown and made the black turbans pay heavily, killing some 1,000 of their fighters. It is not an error the Taliban wish to repeat again.

After years of military impasse nonetheless the relative ease with which NATO has swept into Helmand and all but secured the town of Marjah, a key objective of the mission, a well-defended Taliban base area and focal point of its opium/heroin production which finances its war effort, is a clear psychological and tactical boost to both NATO and the ANA.

Some errant NATO artillery rockets have caused some civilian fatalities, the latest an attack on Sunday in which reportedly over 30 civilians were killed. As ever these killings deeply damage hearts and minds efforts, but given the scale of the operation and a new attentiveness to try and diminish civilian losses, even in this regard NATO seems to be doing better.

Winning - both militarily and politically

A captured Taliban militant

Some senior Taliban figures have been captured

Winning over public opinion in Helmand is as much the objective as any military goal and that the operation was publicized with such fanfare so far in advance, allowing many civilians to leave in safety is also a hallmark of Operation Moshtarak, which not incidentally means "together" in Dari. That togetherness has also witnessed the ANA taking part in operations alongside its western counterparts as never before, with the clear intention of demonstrating in a deeply tribal and clan conscious region always wary of outsiders, that Afghans are taking care of their own.

Professor Fawaz Dergez, a scholar in Middle East politics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, argues it's misleading of the international media to "have expected great battles and lots of casualties, when the body count is not the point."

Dergez says NATO deliberately sacrificed the element of surprise ahead of launching its assault to send an entirely different message beyond a mere show of military might to the civilian population, to build confidence and therefore to wrest support away from the Taliban by limiting violence.

"They wanted to tell the public our intention is not to kill, but that were here to stay, you can rely us on to provide security but not to destroy or to create havoc and for those Taliban that want to peacefully disappear or integrate so be it," he told Deutsche Welle.

Dergez sees the operation as vindicating US President Barak Obama's desire to rationalize the allied effort in Afghanistan, as the US begins to extricate itself militarily from Iraq, shifting focus and resources to the Hindu Kush. As the Washington-led 38,000-strong Afghan troop surge gets underway at last the war effort against the Taliban which the US and the European powers allowed to languish on the cheap for so long, is being properly resourced.

The capture this week of top Taliban military mastermind Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar by Pakistani and US security agents is more good news for the war effort and a positive sign that Islamabad is escalating its own pressure against the Taliban in its midst. It too is fighting a ferocious military campaign against insurgency and Islamic radicalism in the tribal territories, where Al Qaida's leadership reputedly still finds sanctuary.

It remains to be seen whether Mullah Baradar's capture becomes a pawn in expected back-door negotiations with the Taliban, but Dergez says a shift in the manner in which the war is being fought is tangible and Moshtarak is the key to understanding.

"We should not lose sight of the overarching goal, that is the first shot of a new political strategy, to change the process, to change the very configuration of Afghanistan," he said.

But surely all the Taliban fighters that did not come out to fight when it would have been suicidal, have other intentions? Western intelligence agencies have been monitoring the growth of both Taliban and Hezb i Islami guerrilla forces in the hitherto relatively peaceful north of the country, where the bulk of German ISAF troops are deployed.

Read more about the offensive against the Taliban

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