Afghan offensive ends ahead of NATO takeover

Published July 30, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S.-led coalition forces detained four suspected al-Qaida operatives in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday, while a major operation to crush Taliban fighters in the south moved to a close, officials said.

The al-Qaida suspects, accused of planning attacks on coalition and Afghan forces, were caught near Sal Kalay, a village in Khost province, along with assault rifles and a briefcase containing "extremist-related documents," a coalition statement said.

The coalition did not give the suspects' names, nationalities or indicate their rank in the terror group.

The commander of the NATO-led security force in Afghanistan said a large U.S.-led offensive that has killed more than 600 suspected Taliban and at least 19 coalition troops in the south will end when an 8,000-strong NATO force of mostly British, Canadian and Dutch troops takes over command from the coalition in the volatile region on Monday.

It promises to be the toughest combat mission in NATO's 57-year history, and a stern test for a powerful force with surprisingly little experience in fighting.

The credibility of the 26-nation Western military alliance, established in 1949 to deter the Soviet bloc, is at stake. While it has engaged in peace missions and aerial bombing campaigns such as in Kosovo in 1999, NATO has limited experience in ground combat.

Meanwhile, officials said U.S.-led coalition forces and Afghan police killed or wounded 18 suspected Taliban militants in fighting that also left two policemen dead.

Fourteen militants were killed or injured by airstrikes and artillery in Garmser district of the southern Helmand province on Thursday, said provincial police chief Ghulam Nabi Malakhel.

District chief Ghulam Rasool said there was more fighting between militants and police on Saturday but he had no information on casualties.

Four other suspected Taliban were killed in the Tagab district of the northeastern Kapisa province Thursday, after militants fatally shot a policeman, said Yousef Stanezai, spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior.

A militant ambush in the same district later killed another policeman, and police arrested two suspected Taliban.

Police also arrested four militants in the eastern Paktia province, Stanezai said.

Operation Mountain Thrust will wrap up as NATO steps in, though NATO will "keep up the tempo" of operations against the insurgents, said British Lt. Gen. David Richards, commander of NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

Since June 10, more than 10,000 Afghan and coalition forces have fanned out across the south in response to an upsurge in Taliban attacks.

Richards said he did not expect the coalition - whose primary goal was to fight global Islamic militants like al-Qaida that are active in eastern Afghanistan - to operate much longer in the south, where the insurgency is led by the Taliban.

NATO brings a new strategy for dealing with the Taliban rebellion, establishing bases rather than adopting the coalition tactic of chasing down militants.

It wants to bolster the weak government of President Hamid Karzai and win the support of local people by promoting much-needed development.

Richards said he hoped that within three to six months there would be signs of progress, creating secure zones in which aid workers could operate in a region mired in the drug trade and poverty.

Reconstruction would help people see "the fighting is worth something," Richards told a news conference in Kabul.

"I hope people who now are often being intimidated into supporting the Taliban" would have the extra resolve to reject them.

He said NATO forces would be "really, really careful" to avoid civilian losses, but would be as tough in defending themselves as the coalition forces have been.

Civilian deaths during coalition military action - often involving air power and heavy weaponry - have complicated the NATO force's task of winning over a skeptical Pashtun tribal populace.