Thursday, February 11, 2010

Can there be much hope for the civilians of Marjah?

A reader comments in re my post of a couple of days ago that we ought to trust the ISAF press release asserting that most of the population of the about-to-be devastated city of Marjah in Helmand province have opted to stay put.  (He also warns readers off from my "opinions."  Hey, that's fine.  It's nice to know that someone is reading.)

McClatchy news service - which quotes  the same press release - reports a somewhat different story:
Mohammad Anwar, the head of the provincial council for Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital near Marjah, told McClatchy by phone that the council had registered 244 families from Marjah, 60 of them in a newly established camp. He estimated that another 100 families had gone to the nearby district of Nawa, and more had trekked to the towns of Garmsir and Gereshk.
"They're still coming; every day they're coming," Anwar said. "They come by tractor, Toyota station wagon, some with blankets and other possessions, some with just their children . . . ."
"I don't know what NATO is talking about, 50 families came out (of Marjah) just today," tribal leader Juma Gul said by phone from Lashkar Gah. "There are just poor people left there, those who don't have money to come to Lashkar Gah."

Meanwhile, those unfortunate souls still hunkered down in Marjah are about to see their city be crumbled around them.  Again, from McClatchy:
The presence of a large number of civilians could make the operation much trickier and provide a test of the new coalition military doctrine of protecting the population. A large media contingent from around the world will accompany the troops, recording their progress.

An estimated 2,000 Taliban fighters are dug in and are believed to have planted roadside bombs and booby-trapped buildings. Residents said the insurgents had dug trenches in a traffic circle and mined the roads out of town. It may be too late for those who haven't escaped by now.
"If (NATO forces) don't avoid large scale civilian casualties, given the rhetoric about protecting the population, then no matter how many Taliban are routed, the Marjah mission should be considered a failure," said Candace Rondeaux, an Afghanistan-based analyst at the International Crisis Group, an independent research and campaigning organization.
Although international forces counted relatively few evacuees, local people told McClatchy that more civilians had evacuated, though still only a fraction of the population. Leaflets dropped over the town had warned townspeople for days of the impending offensive.
"The message to the people of the area is, of course, keep your heads down, stay inside when the operation is going ahead," Mark Sedwill, the civilian head of NATO in Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul.

Well, isn't that reassuring.  I'm sure the residents of Marjah are sleeping more soundly.

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