OUTSKIRTS OF MARJAH, Afghanistan (AFP) – Taliban resistance to a major US-led assault in southern Afghanistan has slowed, the military said Wednesday, as civilians stream out of the area in search of food and supplies.
Around 15,000 US, Afghan and NATO forces have been fighting for two weeks to capture the area of Marjah from the Taliban and drug lords, in the first test of a US-led surge of troops battling to end the eight-year Afghan war.
Commanders say progress has been slower than expected, the advance hampered by booby-trap bombs and pockets of stiff resistance, but the military now says the fighting has eased slightly.
Civilians “held hostage” in their homes around Marjah, part of the central river valley in the southern province of Helmand, are leaving as militant gunmen appear to be melting away, an Afghan humanitarian worker said.
Provincial authorities say more than 20,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have arrived in the Helmand capital Lashkar Gah, where they are staying with friends or relatives about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north of Marjah.
“People are leaving for several reasons: they are facing a serious lack of food and medicine, they hear that IDPs have been provided assistance elsewhere, and the military operation is extending,” said Ajmal Samadi, head of the independent Afghanistan Rights Monitor.
The assault, dubbed Operation Mushtarak or “together” in the Dari dialect, aims to clear the Marjah and Nad Ali areas of Taliban control. Related article: US military calls a shura
Once the military phase of the operation is complete, the Afghan government plans to re-assert authority and set up civilian services, including security.
Police have already moved into Marjah, provincial authorities have said, and are setting up patrol points while they wait for control to be established.
But improvised explosive devises (IEDs) are hampering the movement of troops into the target area and of residents out, the military and aid groups said.
A US Marines spokesman said fighting had slowed in recent days, allowing some commercial activity to emerge, but insisted the battle was far from over for the poppy-growing plain at the heart of the Afghan opium industry. Related article: Tough road ahead after Afghan assault
“The last couple of days have been a lot quieter,” said Captain Abraham Sipe, spokesman for the US Marines at Taskforce Leatherneck in Helmand.
“A couple of the bazaars are re-opening in limited fashion, which is an indication that the fighting has quietened down, but it is not over by any stretch of the imagination,” he said.
But Samadi said roads had been closed by IEDs planted by the Taliban and by military checkpoints, “so traders are not delivering supplies”.
Despite the IED threat, aid workers said that residents desperate for food, water and medical supplies were risking the trip to Lashkar Gah.
“Civilians are using routes that have been used by foreign forces or they are walking because transport has become so expensive as the risks are high,” Samadi said.
He put the number of Marjah families seeking refuge in Lashkar Gah at 3,700, or more than 20,000 people, saying that another 400 were in safer areas of Nad Ali, and 300 in the neighbouring province of Nimroz.
Southern Afghanistan, in particular Helmand and the adjacent province of Kandahar, have been the main focus of insurgent activity since the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001. Related article: Britain warns Karzai over election watchdog
Senior military commanders, including US General Stanley McChrystal who commands the 121,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, have said Kandahar is in line for a major anti-insurgent offensive of its own.
Abdul Majeed Zazai, Kandahar’s director for culture and information, was shot dead Wednesday “by unknown gunmen riding past on a motorcycle”, the province’s deputy police chief said.