British and US troops to launch new Afghanistan offensive

• Attempt to wrest Helmand areas from Taliban control
• Move comes on eve of peace talks in London

British and other Nato troops are preparing a major offensive in southern Afghanistan aimed at seizing areas in Helmand province still under Taliban control, the British commander in the region said today.

Major General Nick Carter said the operation would be aimed at asserting the control of the Kabul government over areas of Helmand that are either ungoverned or under the influence of a Taliban shadow government.

Carter, who commands the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in southern Afghanistan, did not say when the operation would be launched, but the announcement came three days before an international conference in London that is due to agree a peace and reintegration plan to persuade Taliban fighters and commanders to give up their fight.

The British army chief, General Sir David Richards, said that negotiations with the Taliban should be conducted from a "position of relative strength and the knowledge on their part that they [the Taliban] could just lose".

"So it's a matter of timing, not the principle," Richards told Reuters.

The new operation, which focuses on the Helmand river valley to the west and south-west of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, will involve elements of the 10,000 British troops in Helmand and 13,000 newly-arrived US marines. It will also rely on intensive political preparations, including contacts with local elders to explain the purpose of the mission, in the hope of minimising casualties.

"What's really important ... is that if there is a conversation before the operation between the Afghans and the maliks, or the village leaders, on the ground, and it is explained to them what will happen when the government asserts control and authority over those areas, we often find the Afghans don't fight - but they will welcome you," Carter told the BBC's World At One programme. He added that the provincial Afghan authorities, led by the governor, Gulab Mangal, were playing a prominent role in operations in Helmand.

Thursday's London Conference on Afghanistan will bring together about 60 governments, including troop contributors, donors and neighbouring countries. It will approve new ceilings for the strength of the Afghan army (172,000) and police (134,000) and agree a plan to hand over responsibility for security district to district from Isaf to Afghan forces.

In November, Gordon Brown said that the handover process should get under way this year, and that at least five Afghan provinces should be handed over by the end of 2010. The criteria for handing over districts have been debated between politicians seeking a timetable for the transition process, and generals who insist that handover should be dictated by conditions in each area.

The Nato commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told the Financial Times : "I'm not sure what the outcome will be, but I believe that it will be more conditions-based, there will be an agreement on certain conditions driving the transitions."

A Nato official said: "There is an awful lot of work going on on transition. It is not just a military thing. Unless you take governance and development into account in every district, you are going to come up with a meaningless assessment of conditions there." President Karzai will also present his government's peace plan, involving a package of economic incentives for Taliban fighters and commanders to defect. It is also expected to include a direct appeal to Taliban commanders to attend a peace council in the spring.

McChrystal argued that "a political solution to all conflicts is the inevitable outcome. And it's the right outcome. The re-integration of fighters can take a lot of the energy out of the current levels of the insurgency," the Nato commander said. "Then you open up, the option, the possibility, for everybody to look at what's the right combination of participation in the government here."

The London conference will also seek to enlist the help of regional powers to help create conditions for a political settlement. Iran said it would attend, but at a junior level. Tehran has told the British government it will send Ghanizadeh Ezabadi, the head of the western Europe desk at the Iranian foreign ministry.

Karzai met his Pakistani counterpart, Asif Ali Zardari, in Istanbul, todayto brief him on his peace plan and to ask for Pakistani support. Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence agency (ISI) has a long history of ties to the Taliban, and the head of the ISI, Ahmed Shuja Pasha, attended the meeting in Turkey.

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, is due to take part tomorrow in more talks in Istanbul, involving other Afghan neighbours, including Iran.

"The combination of a new Afghan government and a new focus of the international military and civilian efforts means that this is going to be a decisive period in the Afghan campaign," Miliband told EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday. "There's a new government in Kabul, there's a new military strategy, there's a new civilian surge ... it's very important that we get the political strategy right at this time."


Julian Borger and Richard Norton-Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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