Another hyped-up push in Afghanistan | Simon Tisdall

Operation Moshtarak is more a battle against time than against the Taliban, and risks displacing the problems facing allied forces

It has been quite a while since British troops have been involved in a ground offensive on the scale of Operation Moshtarak in Helmand province. Afghanistan has not seen anything like it since the Taliban were toppled in 2001. Nor, it seems, have Britain's tabloid newspapers. Excited headlines such as "SAS take out top 50 Taliban" and editorials lauding "our boys" recall (for some) the heady days of the Iraq invasion, or even the unbridled media jingoism of the 1982 Falklands war.

British soldiers sent into combat overseas fully deserve the public's support, all the more so given the consistent political failure over the years to equip them adequately, pay them properly, and care for them compassionately when they return home. But uncritical backing for Britain's troops is a very different matter from uncritical backing for a US-devised strategy that is as shot full of holes as a Taliban compound after a visit by a helicopter gunship.

The linked offensives around Marjah, and Nad-e-Ali to the north-east, mark the first large-scale application of the counter-insurgency strategy developed by US commander General Stanley McChrystal and adopted by Barack Obama last autumn. About 15,000 Afghan, US and British troops are involved, plus increased civilian backup. As US national security adviser James Jones explained, "our plans call for clearing the area, holding the area, and then providing some building for the people there, better security, better economic opportunity, better governance, more of an Afghan face".

The idea is that a civilian-led aid and development "surge" will follow close on the heels of the military advance and that local tribal leaders, enticed by promises of enduring, Afghan-run security and pre-funded assistance, will come on board. So too, it is hoped, will Taliban foot soldiers whose grievances are economic, not ideological.

The obstacles facing this overall approach, which has had mixed results elsewhere, are as obvious as they are numerous. So far the allied advance has met only sporadic, localised resistance. As in previous fights, Taliban commanders appear to have pulled back most of their men while they study their opponents' tactics and look for weaknesses. When they judge the time is right, the Taliban may hit back hard.

The contradictions inherent in a strategy that prioritises protection of civilians while placing them at mortal risk were illustrated early on by the killing of 12 non-combatants by stray Nato rockets. Then there is the key question of manpower. Marjah, a Talib stronghold that successfully defied the underpowered British last year, has now fallen, unsurprisingly, to a much larger force.

Assuming they don't get bogged down (and that's a big assumption), just how long US and British elements can and will stay in the field before moving to other fronts is unclear. Some reports say the Taliban are regrouping in Uruzgan, north of Helmand. The question thus arises: is the allied offensive merely displacing the problem? And what about the war's hinterlands: the Talib and al-Qaida bases in Waziristan – where Pakistan perpetually prevaricates – hostile Baluchistan, and the northern borders, where a spreading war threatens fragile Uzbek supply routes?

Crucially, the willingness of tribal leaders and Afghan civilians to believe in a permanent transition from Taliban to Afghan government control relies on the still highly suspect quality of the Afghan police and local governance. Training continues apace in Kabul and elsewhere, funded by the EU and others. President Hamid Karzai has promised repeatedly to come down hard on corruption at national and provincial level. But timetables for transition to Afghan control in settled areas, let alone in the Helmand valley, remain vague, because nobody honestly knows how much time it is going to take.

Time is exactly what the allied forces don't have. As the Taliban know well, electoral calculations are dictating the beginning of a US "drawdown" by mid-2011. Fighting Nato contingents such as the Canadians and Dutch are going, too. And Gordon Brown has shifted as far as he dares in indicating a similar timeline for the start of a British departure.

If and when warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sirajuddin Haqqani meet Karzai in his mooted "grand shura" – possibly within the next few weeks – they know that if they can't agree, they have only to sit and wait. Mullah Omar, the Taliban's grand panjandrum, enthroned in Quetta, knows it too. They calculate, with good reason, that the Americans and their friends will not stay the course; that soon, relatively speaking, they will leave – just as, eventually, feringhees ("Franks") have always left Afghanistan.

For all the media ballyhoo, the Marjah offensive is thus the starting gun in a race against time; a chance for Obama to escape his "war of necessity" with something approaching honour. But it is a race that the US and Nato, following current policy, appear doomed to lose. Britain's soldiers are doing a great job. But soldiers are not the solution.


Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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