LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan - A NATO offensive is a hard sell to some Afghans, even if it breaks the Taliban's iron grip on their lives and eventually delivers Western aid.

Thousands of foreign troops, including U.S. Marines and British forces, as well as the largest number of Afghan troops ever involved in a NATO operation, are gearing up to fight in Marjah town in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province.

One local Taliban commander, Qari Fazluddin, told Reuters some 2,000 fighters were ready to fight in Marjah, the group's last big stronghold in the southern province.

People reached by telephone -- many Marjah residents are afraid to leave their homes for fear of planted Taliban bombs -- are skeptical the NATO campaign can lead to political and economic stability in a country ravaged by war for decades.

Some don't want change. The Taliban may be brutal but they can also be good business partners.

Our poppy business is booming under the Taliban. We don't want the government, we want the Taliban, said Abdul Ahmad, a farmer.

When the government destroys our only income, why should we support it?

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's illegal opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, an industry Western countries say funds the insurgency against NATO troops and the Afghan government.

The assault, the first since U.S. President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan in December, is the start of a campaign to impose government control on rebel-held areas this year, before U.S. forces start to draw down in 2011.

We don't have jets and tanks but we have already planted hundreds of roadside bombs to inflict high casualties on the invading forces, said Fazluddin, the Taliban commander.


Marjah, an area of lush farmland criss-crossed by canals, has been a breeding ground for both insurgents and poppy cultivation for years. The troops want to take the town soon in an effort to demonstrate the Afghan government's ability to reinforce its own security.

Western aid may also flow in the direction of Afghans frustrated by state corruption if the Taliban lose the bastion.

But Safar Khan seemed oblivious to such possibilities.

I hate both the Taliban and the government for their actions, he said. The Taliban force us to give them food and shelter. If we don't, they beat people to death.

Still, some pinned their hopes on Afghan and Western forces.

We want the government and international forces to drive out the Taliban from our town, so we could live in peace, said Mohammad Naeem.

That may be the easy part. Ensuring long-term economic and political support to people in former Taliban bastions may be the best way to ensure the militants do not come back.

If this operation is a show of force then it is not going to work, said Haji Usman, a Marjah tribal elder.

The government needs to bring all public services that we are looking for -- schools, clinics, mosques, electricity and jobs for young boys to get busy instead of fighting for Taliban.

He said the government must provide alternatives to poppy crops or the farmers may not be willing to cooperate.

That may be wishful thinking.

Over the past several years, the country has consistently managed to produce thousands of tonnes more than the entire global demand for the illegal drug, despite an international effort to stamp it out.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Bryson Hull and Jerry Norton)