Operation in Marjah 'jeopardises peace plan'

Displacement and misery suffered by residents of Helmand province after a recent military operations have prompted many to side with the insurgents.

KABUKL // When US-led forces launched a major attack on a small corner of south-west Afghanistan recently, the operation was accompanied by a blizzard of military activity and media attention not seen since the war began almost nine years ago.

Weeks later, the true impact on Marjah of Operation Moshtarak is starting to emerge. The hype may have faded away, but tens of thousands of civilians caught up in the fighting are now trying to piece their lives back together. "People are still very worried. It's a very dangerous, troublesome and fearful situation," said Haji Walii Jan Sabiri, a local MP. Marjah lies in the Nad Ali district of Helmand province. A rural area where many of the residents earn their living from growing the poppies used to make opium, it fell under Taliban control in 2008.

Then, earlier this year, Nato forces openly announced it would soon be the target of a major operation. In the end, about 15,000 troops led by US Marines were sent to clear the region and, in a hail of press conferences and media briefings, the mission was quickly portrayed as a success and potential turning point in the war. The reality on the ground is less black and white. Mr Sabiri described a situation in which civilians have been left hurt and intimidated by all sides involved in the fighting.

He accused the Afghan military and police of looting sheep, chickens, rice and flour from shops and houses. He also spoke of widespread displacement, saying 3,500 families had officially escaped to the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah. On top of this, Mr Sabiri said he had informal reports that 500 families had fled to the neighbouring province of Farah, 800 to Nimroz and over 100 to Pakistan, where he claimed many were falsely arrested on suspicion of being insurgents.

Despite all the suffering, he insisted the Taliban were still strong in Marjah and had beheaded seven local men, including an imam, for alleged links to the government in the wake of Operation Moshtarak. Mr Sabiri blamed much of this on inadequate planning by international forces. Having initially met senior military commanders, including Gen Stanley McChrystal, the head of Nato and US troops in Afghanistan, he and other community leaders had been assured that the impact on civilians would be minimal. The co-ordination between the two parties lasted for just a few days before ending without explanation, Mr Sabiri said.

"They have done these kinds of operations in each district of Helmand and they do not fix the problems they make," he added. "They leave the people by themselves." Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, visited Marjah last week and heard complaints that foreign troops had killed and wrongly arrested civilians. But he promised the hundreds of local elders who had gathered to listen that security would be improved and schools and roads built.

When Operation Moshtarak was taking place, the media often described the target as "a city", yet that was far from accurate. In reality, Marjah is overwhelmingly rural and incredibly poor even by this country's standards. The Afghan Red Crescent Society ran one first aid posts and had around 80 volunteers in the area when it was under Taliban control. "Other services you could not find. When we visited there were no schools, no clinics, no hospitals, no roads, no clean drinking water, nothing," said Abdul Rahman Kalantary, the society's director of disaster management.

"My understanding is that the people need services. If the government doesn't provide services for them, how can we expect them to work on peace and reconciliation and so on? They don't have any basic facilities." According to Mr Kalantary, 1,400 families have been displaced in Marjah and Nad Ali alone. With a survey of the destruction still being carried out, he said 62 houses had so far been reported damaged.

He added that civilian deaths were "very low" and that mines planted by the Taliban had been the main danger to local people and soldiers. As is often the case in Afghanistan, precise details are hard to pin down and events in Marjah have in large part already been consigned to history amid the fog of this ongoing war. But a minimum of between 21 and 35 civilians are known to have died during Operation Moshtarak. Gen McChrystal apologised following one incident that killed 12 civilians.

Reports on the displaced also vary, but it is certain that tens of thousands of individuals opted to flee. The UN's refugee agency puts the figure at 4,275 families - the bulk of which went to Lashkar Gah. It claims around 800 have since returned home. Controversy has also surrounded the Afghan government's newly appointed civilian chief in Marjah, who is believed to have a criminal record in Germany for attempting to stab his own son to death. He denies any wrongdoing. Kandahar is now due to be the target for the next major offensive, probably this summer, by which time Gen McChrystal has said "our forces will be significantly increased around there".

Lal Gul, the chairman of Afghanistan Human Rights Organisation, warned that the assault on Marjah had jeopardised plans for peace and reconciliation with members of the insurgency. He said rebels in Kandahar and Helmand often had the backing of local people, just as the Mujahideen did during their struggle against Soviet occupation. "When they carried out operations with small guns or rocket launches and achieved a lot, there was just one reason: they had support from the public. Now also many people support the Taliban," he said.