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Moshtarak is a fight for hearts and minds

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 15 February 2010

Operation Moshtarak in Afghanistan relies on a policy of securing the population rather than trying to kill Taliban forces. That that is not an easy undertaking, reports Lindsey Hilsum.

US 1/3 Marine Weapons Company officer issues orders as marines advance against Taliban. (Credit: Getty)

America's new strategy: trying to wage war without losing friends and alienating people. Difficult in any combat, but especially in Afghanistan, where any foreigner is seen as an invader.

And it has to be explained to the US public, too.

General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, does not want to turn Marjah, in Helmand, into another Fallujah.  

In 2004 Iraqi insurgents fought fiercely and the US responded with overwhelming force. Most civilians had left, but the US assault reduced the town pretty much to ruins.

Now they are doing far more to avoid problems like yesterday's rocket misfire in Helmand, which killed 12 civilians.

Michael Clarke of the Royal United Services Institute told Channel 4 News: "This is the McChrystal strategy. This is the first big test of it.

"Far less air power being used because that runs the risk of civilian casualties.

"Far more boots on the ground which is what all about. Much greater attention to the civilians - not to fighting the Taliban but gaining control of areas where most civilians live."

American forces are focused on taking Marjah, clearing the surrounding area of Taliban, and rapidly installing Afghan local government and security.

The British are tasked to improve security around Kandahar and roads into the city, secure population in central Helmand especially the Nad-e-Ali district, and then return to Kandahar to support Afghan government and police.

Last July the British took and held parts of Helmand in Operation Panther's Claw. The idea now is to secure 70 per cent of the population of Helmand and Kandahar - two million people - leaving the sparsely populated desert to the Taliban.

They said today that their strategy of "khraf and thraf" was working, and that the operation proved that the Karzai government, with its foreign backers, was insincere when it said it wanted to talk peace.

This operation may continue for days or weeks, after which international and government forces will declare military victory. They say they will stay and so will the Afghan forces.

Michael Clarke explained that the big question surrounding the whole operation is whether or not the Afghan forces stay when control is handed over to them.

The war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in Helmand and Kandahar. But victory or defeat will be hard to judge until foreign forces have withdrawn, leaving the Afghan government and national army to hold the line.

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