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Afghanistan: Nato's new era of counter-insurgency

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 15 February 2010

As the deaths of 12 civilians by a US missile hampers Nato's efforts to win hearts and minds Nick Paton Walsh writes that the latest Afghanistan operation could indicate more months of violence.

US Marines (Getty)

It was always about signals.

The move by Nato into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah was meant to herald a new era of smart counter-insurgency:

An Afghan "government in a box" to implant as soon as the troops had filled the predictable holes left by the Taliban (they wisely know they can't win against Apache helicopters, pilotless drones, and thousands of battle-hungry and well-fed Nato troops); an emphasis on protecting civilians; an offensive broadcast in advance and delayed by a day until Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, gave it the green light.

Today it seemed like the broad goals of the offensive had been achieved with much of the area under Nato control, and the perilous and nightmarish task to clearing the area of roadside bombs and straggling insurgents was under way.

But the headline from the operation will unfortunately remain the exact opposite of Nato's original goal: to protect the population.

Twelve civilians killed by an erroneous rocket strike hit a compound where insurgents were holed up.

Chris Chivers from the New York Times was there to report the unit in the area's reaction to the strike: "Several Marines cursed. The wrong building had been hit. The company commander saw the children stream outside, ordered a cease-fire, and sent a patrol to go help."

This was exactly what they had hoped would not happen, but despite the admirable efforts made the reason this offensive was launched was because the area originally held tens of thousands of people.

It would have been a miracle had only combatants got hurt.

Today you could almost see the fury still in General McChrystal's face when he praised the partnership shown between the Afghan Army and Nato shown in the operation. He's carpeted soldiers for erroneous airstrikes before.

After this mistake, the weapons system behind the fault has been suspended from service.

In keeping with the new way of thinking, McChrystal called President Karzai to apologise for the civilian deaths.

The previous routine was often that Nato would release a statement later admitting some deaths but disputing the toll offered by locals and, President Karzai would, later still, try to gain domestic political points by railing against Nato's "carelessness".

The signals for this offensive were all important: it is, perhaps, the blueprint for a very busy and violent few months ahead.

Nato want to use their new resources and the massive boost of political will they have, to win back some areas held by the Taliban for years.

The city of Kandahar, the Taliban's traditional stronghold, is a possible target for the tens of thousands more troops headed to Afghanistan in the coming year. So are the volatile cities of the east.

By retaking populated areas from the grip of the insurgency, McChrystal's plan hopes to win over the population to genuinely support the Afghan government (The remaining part of the sentence that the new strategy's proponents stop short of saying is: "Then we can all go home").

Many fear the insurgency will simply pop up again where Nato is not - elsewhere in Afghanistan, or, perhaps more horrifyingly, in their nuclear-weaponised neighbour, Pakistan.

Marjah has been heavily filmed and heavily watched.

It has been marred by civilian deaths, but illuminated by a different way of thinking, albeit one that's heavily advertised.

We will see many more such pushes in the coming six months.

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