Ainsworth braced for Afghanistan ‘hard bit’

By Alex Stevenson

Defence secretary Bob Ainsworth has warned the post-clearing phase of the Operation Moshtarak offensive will be the “hard bit”.

Around 4,000 British soldiers have moved into Nad ‘Ali in central Helmand province as part of the International Security Assistance Force operation over the weekend, meeting – unlike their American allies – little resistance from the Taliban.

Heavy booby-trapping continues to be a threat and an improvised explosive device killed Rifleman Mark Marshall from 6th Battalion The Rifles on Sunday. A soldier from 36 Engineer Regiment was killed in Helmand yesterday.

Mr Ainsworth said he was “extremely saddened” to hear of Rifleman Marshall’s death as he pressed the importance of quickly providing opportunities for local people.

“This is the issue now at hand and the most important phase of the operations begins now; winning over the hearts and minds of the people of Nad ‘Ali and Marjah so that they don’t tolerate the Taliban in their midst, so that they are not intimidated by them and so the insurgency cannot re-establish itself in the area,” he said.

“That’s the hard bit, and while the operations have gone extremely well, the difficult bit will be the months ahead as we try to secure and retain control of the area and influence of the people.”

After the initial ‘clearing phase’ British forces are now engaged in helping the Afghan government with ‘hot stabilisation’. This involves the establishment of civil authority and beginning projects to set up hospitals and schools, the Ministry of Defence said.

“In some areas the build phase will be starting in a couple of days; but in other parts of the region the clear will go on for some considerable time,” the head of Britain’s armed forces, chief of the defence staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, said.

“So I think one will gradually, over time, morph into the other. But I think in about three days you will start to see the Afghan national civil order police moving in to hold the territory in the longer term.”

Operation Moshtarak translates into Dari as ‘together’. Analysts have hailed the publicity which preceded the offensive, which they claim has minimised the number of civilian deaths.