Afghan offensive hit by ‘damaging’ civilian deaths

By Alex Stevenson

The head of Britain’s armed forces has called the deaths of 12 Afghan civilians in the Operation Moshtarak offensive a “very serious setback”.

Air Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup, chief of the defence staff, was commenting as 4,000 US soldiers and 4,000 British troops with Canadian, Danish and Estonian forces continued their offensive in central Helmand province.

The 12 deaths occurred yesterday as 12 rockets fired by US forces did not reach their intended target. US general Stanley McChrystal has suspended their use.

“This operation… is not about battling the Taliban, it’s about protecting the local population,” Sir Jock said on the Today programme.

“You don’t protect them when you kill them.”

He pointed out that “in any conflict accidents happen” and warned that most of the civilian casualties, including two-thirds of all deaths from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban.

The Moshtarak offensive – which means ‘together’ in the local Dari language – sees International Security Assistance Force troops advancing into an area of central Helmand to the south of the region taken in last summer’s offensive, Operation Panther’s Claw.

Heavy booby-trapping in the town of Marjah is the main obstacle to progress on the third day of the operation.

Commanders’ focus is already focusing on the lengthier second phase of Moshtarak, after the initial ‘insertion’ period.

“When you move into an area where the Taliban have dominated and repressed for some time… the local people sit on the fence, they remain suspicious,” Sir Jock added.

“They wait to see whether the Afghan government are going to provide all the services and support they expect. It’s going to take time to persuade locals they should be accepting the Afghan government.”