|US General Stanley McChrystal wanted citizens to know that an Afghan government will be there to replace the Taliban.|
NATO forces warn of offensive strike against Taliban
Afghan citizens flee Marjah as militants dig in
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - Minivans piled high with mattresses and clothing lined up at checkpoints yesterday as hundreds of civilians fled a Taliban-controlled area ahead of a planned NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan.
The militants, meanwhile, dug in for a fight, reinforcing their positions with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons, according to witnesses.
The US military has not given a start date for the operation to clear insurgents from the Helmand province town of Marjah, the biggest community in the south under insurgent control. But the military has said fighting will start soon, and many residents were not taking any chances.
American aircraft dropped leaflets over Marjah yesterday warning people of the coming offensive, officers said, and the United States fired illumination rounds after sundown, apparently to help spot Taliban positions.
Villagers said the leaflets were aimed primarily at the militants, listing several of their commanders by name and warning fighters to leave the area or be killed.
US General Stanley McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, said the success of the operation depends on convincing civilians that the government will improve services once the militants are gone.
The offensive in Marjah - a farming community and major opium-production center with a population of 80,000 - will be the first since US President Obama announced he was sending 30,000 additional troops.
President Hamid Karzai discussed the ongoing operations in Helmand province in a telephone conversation yesterday with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, a spokesperson for Brown said.
The spokesperson said they “welcomed the leading role’’ played by Afghan Security Forces in preparing for the offensive, stressing that Afghan leadership was fundamental to the success of the operation.
US officials have long telegraphed their intention to seize Marjah. McChrystal said the element of surprise was not as important as letting citizens know that an Afghan government will be there to replace Taliban overlords and drug traffickers.
“We’re trying to create a situation where we communicate to them that when the government reestablishes security, they’ll have choices,’’ McChrystal said yesterday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said there was no way to count the number of people who have left Marjah because many have moved in with relatives or rented houses in nearby towns instead of registering for emergency relief.
Mohammad Hakim, 55, a tribal leader in Marjah, said fear has risen over the past two weeks, and he knows at least 20 families who had left. He himself planned to take his wife, nine sons, four daughters, and grandchildren to live with relatives in Lashkar Gah.