Big offensive builds up in Afghanistan, thousands flee

KANDAHAR: A new and possibly decisive chapter of the Afghan war is unfolding. The US is preparing a major attack on the Taliban, the militants are being squeezed in their Pakistani sanctuaries, and the Afghan government is trying to draw them into peace talks.

Taliban militants are also massing and preparing for the big fight, villagers fleeing the area said on Sunday.
Around 2,000 people have fled their homes in a troubled southern district of Afghanistan ahead of the offensive intended to clear Taliban militants, officials said Sunday.

Thousands of Nato and Afghan troops led by newly-deployed US marines are expected to carry out the operation in the Marjah area of Helmand province, described by military officials as the last bastion of Taliban control.

If the assault goes ahead —possibly within days — it will be the biggest against the insurgents since the war started in 2001. Fearing for their safety, hundreds of war-weary Afghan families have packed their belongings and left the district, taking refuge in safer areas such as the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.

The Marjah plain, in the central Helmand River valley, is home to about 80,000 people. It is the source of much of the world’s opium poppy crop and has long been under the Taliban’s control, whose insurgency is funded by drug money. The militants are waging a bloody insurgency focused on Helmand and the neighbouring Kandahar province.

Fighting them are about 113,000 international military personnel under US and Nato command. The commander of foreign forces, Gen Stanley McChrystal, said the offensive, called Operation Mushtarak (‘Together’), aimed to clear out the insurgents so local authorities can retake control.