BBC BLOGS - Newsnight: Mark Urban
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Taking the offensive

Mark Urban | 11:30 UK time, Friday, 4 December 2009

NOW ZAD, HELMAND - US marines have launched a major operation designed to clear a key part of this province of insurgents.

It is the first major demonstration after President Barack Obama's speech of US determination to take the initiative from the Taliban and in the words of one officer here, "crush them".

Now Zad was a thriving market town of around 20,000 inhabitants until British troops came here in 2006.

During the battles that followed a school was bombed by Nato aircraft and the entire civilian population left, creating a ghost town.

The aim of the operation which began on Friday is to clear the town before bringing back the Afghan district governor.

US marines have poured into the area during recent days and during the early hours of Friday morning staged heliborne landings designed to block either the withdrawal of those fighters in the town or their reinforcement by others in the surrounding area.

During the past two years the Taliban are thought to have sewn thousands of Improvised Explosive Devices in the abandoned town.

So this morning's air landings were followed by a breaching operation by combat engineers.

They have been firing Mic-Lics - rockets which tow a hose full of high explosive behind, to clear lanes through areas of suspected IEDs.

The hose contains 1,700lbs of high explosive which detonates, destroying any buried mines or devices, and creating a path for troops to follow.

These operations are seen both as a chance to end the two year stalemate in Now Zad, something which one US commander has described as an "un-marine-like strategy" and to trial techniques for entering other guerrilla strongholds in this and Kandahar provinces.

Soldiers from the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, with which we are embedded, held a prayer service before moving into the operation this morning.

Estimates of guerrilla fighters in Now Zad and its surrounding area range from 2000-3,000.

Nobody really knows whether the Taliban will fight the marines as they move through the town clearing it. That is, as one lieutenant here put it, "the billion dollar question".

Classic guerrilla theory would suggest that they should avoid confronting the large forces massed for this operation.

But the loss of the town would be a symbolic blow for the insurgency, so a hard fight is expected at some stage.

The US assumed responsibility for Now Zad from the British last year. Since then thousands of American soldiers have been sent to Helmand, and now, many thousands more are on their way.

These extra numbers have allowed them to mass forces for offensive operations like this one.

If these additional troops are not simply to be sunk into the defence of newly conquered districts in the backwoods of these southern provinces, Afghan forces will have to be increased to take over security in places like Now Zad.

Currently the Afghan army has a nominal strength of over 7,000 in Helmand but an actual presence of about half that, since so many are absent for a variety of reasons.

Afghan security forces are already spread thin, and their presence on this operation is very small compared to that of the Americans.

The risk then, as the US steps up its clearing operations is that Mr Obama's surge will get ahead of anything the Afghans can manage.


  • Comment number 1.

    The Billion dollar question is how are the Americans going to deal with the Af-Pak boarder region - very rugged, vast, mountainous ? Taking a town is a matter of time and relatively straight forward regards the Taliban. Holding it for any length of time much more difficult without any indigenous army or security ready and up to the job.

    How will they leave them with no where to hide and cut off supplies ?

    Surprised there is little interest in this most important subject from others.

  • Comment number 2.


    Defoliation? Napalm? Daisy-cutters? Bunker/cave busters? Loud music? Parachute prostitutes? Sky TV?

    Not looking good.

  • Comment number 3.


    " . . a thriving market town of around 20,000 inhabitants until British troops came here . . . the entire civilian population left, creating a ghost town".

    Can we be clear? Obama wants a substantial European involvement in increasing NATO forces. Yes?

    British forces apparently were a liability.

    Are we back to the old Iraq situation when the DOD are singing from a different song sheet from the State Department, are the Americans serious or are you simply paying the dues for being embedded?

  • Comment number 4.

    the americans do have experience. how did they deal with the native americans?

    they could do the same with the afghans/taliban?

    sign treaties they do not keep. create reservations, in analogy kill the buffalo [ie opium] that provides them with income, make illegal the carrying of any gun larger than a pistol,etc

    they could do what the israelis, hadrian and the chinese did and build a wall [ and minefields]. stop the flow stop the problem.

  • Comment number 5.

    Nos 4

    There is one massive and very important difference - nukes.


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