KABUL, Afghanistan — As U.S.-led coalition troops prepare for a long-awaited offensive against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, few civilians have managed to escape the town at the center of the operation, raising the risk of civilian casualties that could undermine the Obama administration's military strategy for the country.
The U.S.-led force said Tuesday that fewer than 200 families — around 1,200 people — had left the town of Marjah and the surrounding area, which have a population of about 80,000.
"Commanders in the area are reporting no significant increase in persons moving out of Nad-e Ali district in the last month," the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force said in a statement. "Despite reports of large numbers of civilians fleeing the area, the facts on the ground do not support these assertions."
Thousands of U.S., British and Afghan soldiers are poised to push into the area, with preliminary operations reported to have begun late Tuesday. Afghan police will accompany the soldiers in an effort to establish law and order quickly.
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.
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."
Marjah is the last town in the central Helmand river valley under insurgent control, and it houses a large number of heroin production labs, which the Taliban tolerate — and tax.
"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."
In a separate development, more evidence emerged in neighboring Pakistan of the death of the leader of that country's Taliban movement, Hakimullah Mehsud. Unnamed Taliban commanders told reporters that Mehsud, who apparently had been injured in a U.S. missile strike in Pakistan's tribal belt in mid-January, had died on his way for medical treatment. According to some accounts, he'd been taken close to the central Pakistani city of Multan, on his way for treatment in the southern port of Karachi, when he died.
The Pakistani Taliban continued to deny Mehsud's death, but there are signs that a power struggle has developed to succeed Mehsud, with a new contender, Noor Jamal, alias Toofan, emerging to challenge several more established Pakistani Taliban chiefs.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Nooruddin Bakhshi contributed to this article.)
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