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'Afghanistan has seen a turning point'

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 23 February 2010

Nato is gaining ground in the latest assault against the Taliban but Afghan hearts and minds must be sustained for the insurgency to be properly isolated, Colonel Richard Kemp writes.

Afghan farmers sit next to a Danish tank near Marjah (Getty)

Colonel Richard Kemp is the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and author of Attack State Red.

Operation Moshtarak continues to unfold in the way our commanders on the ground planned and hoped for. In the wake of the largest airmobile operation ever conducted by British forces, the Taliban proved largely powerless to respond.

In recent days British forces in Nad Ali have encountered increased resistance as the Taliban attempted to re-group and identify opportunities. But even this has been limited to isolated gun attacks.

In Marjah, known to be the toughest Taliban stronghold, the US marines have had to deal with pockets of more determined fighters.

In the face of some relatively fierce fighting, the Americans continue to clear the Marjah area of Taliban. In the British sector, clearance has now been completed and our forces are consolidating their gains, patrolling the local districts and constructing patrol bases – so important to convincing the locals that the coalition will remain to protect them from Taliban violence and oppression.

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According to our commanders, the reaction of the majority of local people has been far more positive and welcoming than expected. This has been aided by the presence in large numbers of Afghan troops. Although most are from other parts of the country, and in the Afghan culture therefore virtually foreigners, having them among British and American troops makes a real difference.

This is the critical factor. The people must be won over and their support retained for the Taliban to be properly isolated from this area of Helmand. Work towards this is underway with "hot stabilisation" projects such as "cash for work" programmes.

One of the highest priorities for Operation Moshtarak was installing district governors and appointing local councils to provide the connection with the Helmand provincial governor and to identify and help coordinate development efforts.

District governors have already been on the ground and begun to establish links with local elders. It will not be long before they are permanently installed, providing both a real and symbolic alternative to the heartless cruelty of the Taliban's local regime.

The pointers correspond to main strongholds in Helmand such as Marjah. View Operation Moshtarak in a larger map.

In the words of Major General Gordon Messenger, British military spokesman in London, "so far so good". But we have not yet seen the end of Taliban violence in this part of Helmand – or elsewhere in the province. The capture of Mullah Baradar, the Taliban's operations chief, and other senior leaders, is a distinct setback for the insurgency and to an extent accounts for the sluggishness of the Taliban fightback.

These arrests will play well with the local Afghans, further boosting their confidence in the strength of Nato and the Kabul government. But these men will be replaced rapidly, and their successors will be very determined to earn their spurs and be seen to do so.

Our forces face a very demanding and dangerous few months ahead in Nad Ali and elsewhere in Helmand.

Unfortunately we can expect more British and American casualties in bomb, shooting and suicide attacks. But there is no question that Nato now has the initiative.

Momentum can be built on momentum and we have seen the signpost to a turning point in the Afghan insurgency.

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