Agence France Presse reports that thousands of Afghans are fleeing an anticipated NATO/Afghan (mainly British) campaign against the Taliban stronghold of Marja, a city of 80,000, south of the capital of Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. Marja is in the midst of a major poppy-growing region and so a center of narco-terrorism (the poppies are used to make heroin, and it is estimated that 40% of the drug trade goes to insurgents fighting the Karzai government).
The 5,000-man strike force will be British troops in the majority, and the rest will be Afghan or American. Although the campaign is called Operation Mushtarak, the Dari Persian word for “joint,” it seems obvious that Afghan Army troops are a small part of the force. Unlike past such campaigns, the invasion force will be garrisoned in Marja rather than withdrawing, so as to allow the troops to keep the Taliban out and to win over local hearts and minds.
Perhaps in preparation for the campaign against Marja, in the past couple of days NATO and Afghan troops attacked insurgents in the Baba-ji district of Lashkar Gah, killing some 19 and taking control of it. Afghan troops will be garrisoned in Baba-ji to consolidate Kabul’s control.
NATO and the Afghan army have waged similar campaigns in Qandahar and its environs. NATO is now racing to train enough Afghan troops to stay in the major southern city and keep it out of the hands of the Taliban.
In other news, several hundred demonstrators in Kapisa Province, northeast of Kabul, staged an anti-American demonstration in which they blocked the road to Kabul on Saturday. The crowd was protesting the US military’s arrest of Col. Ataullah Kohistani, security chief of the province. Protesters insist that only the Kabul government has the right to arrest Afghan officials, not foreign troops.