About 300 families have already fled a southern Afghan town ahead of a major new offensive planned on a key Taliban stronghold, provincial officials said today.
Meanwhile, a Taliban spokesman vowed that insurgent forces in and near Marjah in southern Helmand province are ready “to do jihad, to sacrifice their lives” in the upcoming battle, which will serve as a significant test of the new US strategy for turning back the Taliban.
No date for the main attack has been announced, but all signs indicate it will come soon.
It will be the first major military offensive since US President Barack Obama announced last December that he was sending 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan.
Daoud Ahmadi, spokesman for Helmand governor Gulab Mangal, said some 300 families – an estimated 1,800 people – have already moved out of Marjah in recent weeks and days to the capital of Lashkar Gah, about 20 miles north east.
About 60 families are living in a school, which has been converted into a temporary shelter stocked with tents, blankets, food and other supplies, he said. The other 240 families are living with relatives in the area, he said.
Mr Ahmadi said preparations have been made to receive more refugees if necessary. Afghan families have an average of six members, according to private relief groups.
“All these things have been prepared by the governor’s office and disaster department,” he said.
The US goal is to quickly retake control of Marjah, a farming community and major opium-production centre, from Taliban forces. That would enable the Afghan government to re-establish a presence, bringing security, electricity, clean water and other public services to the estimated 80,000 inhabitants.
Over time, American commanders believe such services will undermine the appeal of the Taliban among their fellow Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country and the base of the insurgents’ support.
Calling his hometown of Marjah a “ghost village,” resident Mohammad Hakim said he tried to leave with his family this week before the military offensive began but he was stopped by a group of 30 to 40 Taliban fighters who were patrolling the area.
“I already packed. My family was ready. It was difficult to find a car but I got one,” he said in a phone interview. “But the Taliban stopped me and told me not to come out because they had already planted mines on the road. ‘It’s safer for you to stay in your houses.”’
The few families remaining are very frightened, he said, with Taliban fighters patrolling the area by land while coalition helicopters fly overhead day and night.
Hundreds of US troops from the Army’s 5th Stryker Brigade as well as Afghan soldiers moved into positions north east of Marjah earlier this week as US Marines pushed to the outskirts of the town.
On Wednesday, Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi vowed that the coalition and Afghan military forces will face a major battle to retake Marjah.
“The Taliban are ready to fight, to do jihad, to sacrifice their lives. American forces cannot scare the Taliban with big tanks and big warplanes,” he said.
He blamed US forces for launching a military offensive that will only create difficulties for regular Afghans.
“American forces are here in Afghanistan just to create problems for Afghan people,” he said. “This operation is to create problems for the villagers in winter weather.”