Civilians pay the price of latest Afghan offensive
NATO troops operating in Helmand Province
NATO and Afghan army forces launched “Operation Moshtarak” (“together”) in the opium-rich Marjeh region of southern Afghanistan on February 13, 2010. The 8,000 ground forces and 7,000 supporting troops are ostensibly engaged in a campaign to clear the town and surrounding areas of Taliban fighters. The British commander in Helmand Province, Brigadier James Cowan, called the offensive, which integrates NATO and Afghan forces more closely than ever before, “the beginning of the end of the insurgency.” That may or may not turn out to be true. For now, it most definitely marks the end of security and a normal life for tens of thousands of local residents caught in the crossfire.
Photo by Zohreh Soleimani
NATO commanders announced their assault months in advance in the hope that Taliban fighters would slip away and never come back. But local families have also abandoned the town and now have no place to go. By the time the offensive started, some 1,573 families (about 10,000 people) had left the town of Marjeh and nearby communities for the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah. This time the Afghan government has decided not to set up a special refugee camp for displaced persons from the area. “We don’t want to make this a protracted emergency where people would remain in a camp indefinitely,” Dawood Ahmadi, a spokesman for the governor of Helmand, told IRIN News last week. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) last Tuesday, some 300 families from Marjeh and Nad Ali had so far arrived in the Khashrod district of Nimroz Province and at least 110 families in Nawa district fled to to Bolan district.
In the meantime, refugee numbers have swollen. 22,000 displaced persons are now choking the streets of Lashkar Gah, most of them finding refuge with family members. Those with nowhere to go have sought shelter in abandoned buildings. Marjeh’s population has been halved from around 80,000 to just 40,000. Escape is difficult, both because of the lack of options and the fact that the Taliban has mined much of the area outside of town.
Conditions in Marjeh are appalling. As one local man told IRIN News, “All shops and markets are closed and there is no food for people to buy locally.” At least twenty-one civilians have been killed in recent days, including an attack in Marjeh where twelve civilians died when a rocket hit a house. More civilians died in an unrelated incident on February 22. According to a statement by the Afghan cabinet, “Initial reports indicate that NATO fired Sunday on a convoy of three vehicles ... killing at least twenty-seven civilians, including four women and one child, and injuring twelve others.” There is no word yet on how long the current offensive will last and what good it will do anyone. When the refugees from Marjeh can return home – and what will greet them on their arrival – is anybody’s guess.
The American and British armies call this sort of warfare “courageous restraint,” since it is specifically designed to avoid civilian casualties, although this really begs the question who is really being “courageous” here – the heavily armed and supplied soldiers or the defenseless civilians, most of them women and children, who are struggling for their very survival and who still believe their lives are more than mere statistics. It’s really all a question of perspective. “I think we will succeed,” General Stanley McChrystal said in a recent interview with The Times of London, “and over the long period of the campaign, I am very confident that the Afghans will succeed.” But which Afghans is he talking about, and just whose “success” is he so confident of? For the people of Marjah these days, success is based on whether you manage to find something to eat for your family, or whether you can escape the latest drone attack with your children’s limbs intact.
In related news, on February 18 a New York Times op-ed contributor called Lara M. Dadkhah complained that “an overemphasis on civilian protection is now putting American troops [in Afghanistan] on the defensive in what is intended to be a major offensive [and] the pendulum has swung too far in favor of avoiding the death of innocents at all cost.” I’m not sure what planet this person is from, but she’s not from mine. Is she from yours?