NATO's big offensive against Taliban

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Story by Marco Werman, PRI's "The World"

The battle for the Afghan town of Marjah has not yet begun, but just about everyone -- NATO forces, Taliban militants and Afghan civilians -- seems to know what's coming. NATO is planning an offensive in the southern Afghan town. Taliban fighters say they are digging in for a fight, and hundreds of civilians are fleeing.

The stakes are high: Marjah is the biggest community in Southern Afghanistan under insurgent control.

The BBC's Frank Gardner is stationed 90 miles east of Marjah in Kandahar, embedded with the command center for the operation in southern Afghanistan. He says the generals are deliberately publicizing what's coming.

"What they want to do is minimize civilian casualties, so in a way they've conducted a kind of information operation before they start the shooting part of the battle," said Gardner.  

The information operation includes radio broadcasts and leaflets, which will be airdropped. The leaflets say: "Moshtarak, the combined force and the people will defeat the insurgents and bring a better life. Where will you stand? Help us. Report enemy activity on the following number."

"What they're trying to do, essentially, is to split the Taliban away from the local population; to convince the locals that in the argument over who to side with, the Taliban or the government, they're better off being with the Afghan government," said Gardner.

"It's a big ask because a lot of these operations have resulted in a lot of destruction of civilian property, and also they have left a security vacuum afterwards because NATO, up until now, has not had the troops to be able to hold the ground. So this time, what they're saying is they're going to have the troops; more particularly, they're going to bring in Afghan policemen and others to guarantee security."

While the leaflets are part of the hearts-and-minds war, there is also the shooting war that's part of the offensive, which NATO hopes to avoid. The goal of the operation is to have maximum security with minimum casualties.

"To that end, what they've done is to essentially try and plan this operation backwards so that they're looking at the political situation a few months or weeks down the line," Gardner explains. "They're bringing in extra police and they've trained up, or sort of worked up a government in waiting, as it were, to move in to this area."

Marjah is a major opium production center, and NATO forces are not expecting the Taliban and drug lords to easily relinquish the area.

About 15,000 troops are involved in the operation, with the lion's share being American, according to Gardner. There will be several thousand Afghan troops, along with a few thousand British troops and smaller numbers of other troops.

The name of NATO offensive is Operation Moshtarak. Moshtarak is an Arabic word that means joint, or together, or shared. 

"The whole emphasis on this is saying that this is a joint Afghan coalition operation where the Afghan commanders, who are now getting quite a lot of battle experience, have taken part in the planning." said Gardner. "They were the ones who presented the plan to President Karzai."

But shared intentions aside, Gardener says Moshtarak is a serious operation. "Make no mistake there is an absolutely awesome amount of fire power being amassed for this should the Taliban resist."

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World.

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