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Allied push against Taliban continues -

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ELEANOR HALL: Afghan military leaders say US-led troops have almost taken control of a key Taliban
stronghold in the country's south.

But while local commanders are already declaring the Allied military operation a success, pockets
of stiff resistance remain and US and British leaders are now urging patience.

Analysts also say that success in Afghanistan over the long-term will depend on the role of the
discredited central government.

Barney Porter has our report.

BARNEY PORTER: It's called Operation Moshtarak which means "together" in the local dialect.

US Marines are leading 15,000 American, NATO and Afghan troops in an operation to clear the Taliban
from the Marjah region and make way for Western-backed local authorities.

It's the first major test of President Barack Obama's strategy to reverse the Taliban insurgency
and end the war, now in its eighth year.

Major Mike Taylor is with the 1st Royal Tank Regiment.

MIKE TAYLOR: We expect them, I think to melt into the population for the time being until they get
a feeling for where our extent lies and then we may see some probing of our forward lines from that
point onwards.

BARNEY PORTER: Marjah is a Taliban logistical centre and a base for the lucrative opium trade which
finances the insurgency. There has been fierce resistance in some areas including heavy gunfire,
snipers and booby traps.

But the Afghan Interior Minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, had a message for the hardline fighters.

MOHAMMAD HANIF ATMAR: Your best option is to take advantage of the Afghan peace and reconciliation
program. There is no way you can win there. The Afghan people are determined to win.

BARNEY PORTER: Afghan officials have said as many as 35 militants were killed in the first two days
of the offensive while at least two NATO soldiers have died.

But the operation faced its first major setback when two US rockets missed their target and instead
slammed into a home outside Marjah killing 12 civilians.

The chief of the British Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.

JOCK STIRRUP: Our aim is to protect the population. You don't protect them by killing them. So of
course it was a serious setback. It was a matter of grave concern to all of us and I think General
McChrystal has expressed that concern very forthrightly and he has been apologising to the locals
that are involved. But it's not a setback from which one can't recover.

BARNEY PORTER: Professor William Maley is the director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at
the Australian National University. Amid the conflicting assessments of how much progress NATO has
made, he acknowledges there is an amount of spin.

WILLIAM MALEY: It's in recognition of the fact that success in Afghanistan isn't just a matter of
military activity. It is also a matter of creating the impression that one is the dominant force
within a particular space because it is that impression that then determines for fence sitters
whether to jump one way or the other and in a way it is probably rather positive that instead of
endless reiteration in public about how difficult the situation is, that there is now a certain
attention to this matter from the soldiers on the ground.

BARNEY PORTER: Is it not the case that while these fence sitters may lean one way or the other, it
depends on whoever is in power at the time? Won't they always sway with the wind?

WILLIAM MALEY: Yes, and I think that is why it is very important that if international actors want
to get involved in a situation like that in Afghanistan, they be alert to the need to create an
impression that they will dominate in the long run.

Part of the difficulty since 2002 is that with the drift of attention of the international
community away from Afghanistan to Iraq, it has been all too easy for the Taliban and their backers
to create the impression that the internationals are on the way out and therefore it is not prudent
for people in the wider Afghan population to throw their lot in with those sources.

BARNEY PORTER: There are reports that the Taliban are melting away. Won't they simply be able to
live to fight another day?

WILLIAM MALEY: That is the danger of an operation that is geographically circumscribed - that it
can end up as a kind of balloon squeezing exercise in which the enemy is simply displaced from one
region to another region and then resume their activities.

So, that is something for which we certainly need to watch in coming days and weeks.

BARNEY PORTER: And he also acknowledges the role of the Government in Kabul.

WILLIAM MALEY: I think one of the difficulties that arises at the moment is that there are severe
challenges related to the competence of the Government that will need to be taken up and I'm not
convinced at the moment that it is ready to fill the gap.

If anything the evidence that we witness at the moment is to the effect that the Afghan Government
is moving towards an even more fraudulent approach to future elections from that which prevailed in
August last year and the problem of corruption is a very serious one once again which was recently
documented in a fairly searing report produced by the United Nations office for drugs and crime.

ELEANOR HALL: That is the ANU's professor William Maley speaking to Barney Porter.