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Allied Troops Preparing to Launch Major Afghan Offensive

Wednesday, 03 February 2010 10:29 PM

KABUL — Thousands of Afghan and NATO troops are preparing to launch a major offensive in southern Afghanistan, the hub of a Taliban-led insurgency that has raged for more than eight years, officials said Wednesday.

The operation is expected to be the largest assault since US President Barack Obama announced a surge of 30,000 American troops in December, matched by commitments of almost 10,000 extra forces pledged by NATO partners.

The Afghan defence ministry said the operation in Helmand province would be led by Afghan security forces as part of plans to hand over military and police responsibility to the Western-backed Kabul government.

"It will be a joint Afghan army, police, US Marines and ISAF forces operation led by Afghans," spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi told reporters.

He did not give the exact date of the operation, although it is expected to be launched around the Marjah region of the troubled province within days.

The offensive appears to mirror one led by US Marines in Helmand's Garmser region last year, clearing the area of Taliban, holding it and paving the way for development.

"We are going to go with the Afghan national security forces (to) clear, hold and build, and deliver alternatives for all the Afghans," NATO spokesman Eric Tremblay told reporters.

The operation will be one of the biggest since the war began, with thousands of troops focusing on a region considered a last bastion of Taliban control.

"In terms of strength there will be at least 1,000 Afghan national police, thousands of Afghan national army, and many thousands of ISAF troops," the NATO spokesman said.

Helmand, along with neighbouring Kandahar, is the heartland of the brutal insurgency, which has paralysed much of the Western-funded reconstruction drive that followed the fall of the Taliban regime in the 2001 US-led invasion.

The United States and NATO have 113,000 troops fighting the insurgents, with another 40,000 being deployed over coming months.

Most of the new influx will be deployed to the south, taking the fight to the insurgents as the emphasis of the war switches to development.

A senior ISAF military official told AFP this week the offensive would focus on the Marjah region, southwest of provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, to clear out Taliban insurgents who have been dug in for years.

"It's one of the last areas of Taliban control down there and we need to send a message that they're out of time -- either they get out of there, cross over or die," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Helmand is one of the world's biggest poppy growing regions, turning out the bulk of the country's opium worth around three billion dollars a year, which helps fund the insurgency.

NATO announced Wednesday that a bomb attack killed two US soldiers in southern Afghanistan, pushing the death toll of foreign troops in the country to over 50 for the year so far.

Taliban-linked violence has claimed the lives of 1,618 foreign soldiers and thousands of other mainly civilian lives since 2001, according to tallies from the website icasualties.org and agencies such as the United Nations.

The fresh operation, which military officials said could begin as early as next week, follows a conference in London attended by representatives of 70 countries and organisations to map out a course for Afghanistan's future.

At the conference, President Hamid Karzai presented a plan aimed at turning round the situation in his country, and convincing his Western backers that he is serious about reforms and peace.

Central to his plan is reconciliation of Taliban gunmen -- many of whom are poor and unemployed and fight for cash rather than ideology -- into mainstream Afghan society by providing them with cash and jobs.

Copyright © 2010 AFP. All rights reserved.

© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Wednesday, 03 February 2010 10:29 PM
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