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Marjah offensive: Afghanistan civilians aren't taking the hint

US forces are poised to move into the southern Afghanistan town of Marjah, and have warned civilians to leave the area. But only a few hundred Afghan families have responded.

By Saeed ShahMcClatchy Newspapers / February 10, 2010

Two US Marine Assault Breacher Vehicles test-fire explosive line charges in the desert outside Sistani, a farming suburb of Marjah in Afghanistan's Helmand province Wednesday. The 72-ton vehicle can plow mine fields and fire ribbons of C4 explosive nearly 150 yards ahead to blast safe passage.

Alfred de Montesquiou/AP

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Kabul, Afghanistan

As US-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.

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The US-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. By Wednesday, the Associated Press reported another 100 families had left.

"Commanders in the area are reporting no significant increase in persons moving out of Nad-e Ali district in the last month," the US-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 US, 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.