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Surge troops see combat in Afghanistan

- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 19, 2009

LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan | Close to 3,000 American soldiers who recently arrived in Afghanistan to secure two violent provinces near Kabul have begun operations in the field and already are seeing combat, the unit's spokesman said.

The troops are the first wave of an expected surge of reinforcements this year. The process began to take shape under President Bush but has been given impetus by President Obama's call for an increased focus on Afghanistan.

U.S. commanders have been contemplating sending up to 30,000 more soldiers to bolster the 33,000 already here. Mr. Obama has approved a Pentagon request to deploy Marines and Army troops to the region, and congressional officials said Tuesday an estimated 17,000 troops would go in the coming months.

The new unit - the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division - moved into Logar and Wardak provinces last month, and the soldiers from Fort Drum, N.Y., are now stationed in combat outposts throughout the provinces.

Militants have attacked several patrols with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, including one ambush by 30 insurgents, said Lt. Col. Steve Osterholzer, the brigade spokesman.

Several roadside bombs also have exploded next to the unit's mine-resistance patrol vehicles but caused no casualties, he said.

"In every case our vehicles returned with overwhelming fire," Col. Osterholzer said. "We have not suffered anything more than a few bruises, while several insurgents have been killed."

Commanders are in the planning stages of larger-scale operations expected to be launched in the coming weeks.

Militant activity has spiked in Logar and Wardak over the past year as the resurgent Taliban has spread north toward Kabul from its traditional southern power base. Residents say insurgents roam wide swaths of Wardak, a mountainous province whose capital is about 35 miles from Kabul.

The region has been covered in snow recently, but Col. David B. Haight, commander of the 3rd Brigade, said last week that he expects contact with insurgents to increase soon.

"The weather has made it so the enemy activity is somewhat decreased right now, and I expect it to increase in the next two to three months," Col. Haight said at a news conference.

Col. Haight said he thinks the increase of militant activity in the two provinces is not ideologically based but stems from poor Afghans being enticed into fighting by their need for money. Quoting the governor of Logar, the colonel called it an "economic war."

Afghan officials "don't believe it's hard-core al Qaeda operatives that you're never going to convert anyway," Col. Haight said. "They believe that it's the guys who say, 'Hey you want $100 to shoot an RPG at a Humvee when it goes by,' and the guy says, 'Yeah I'll do that, because I've got to feed my family.' "

Still, Col. Haight said, the region still has hard-core fighters, some of them allied with Jalaludin Haqqani and his son Siraj, a fighting family with a long history in Afghanistan. The two militant leaders are thought to be in Pakistan.

A report from the Rand Corp. think tank argues against that approach. It contends that a "game-changing" strategy is urgently needed in Afghanistan that would have the additional troops train Afghan security forces rather than confront militants directly.

"It is unlikely the United States and NATO [on their own] will defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan," said the paper, which was released Tuesday.

Logar Gov. Atiqullah Ludin said at a news conference alongside Col. Haight that U.S. troops will need to improve both security and the economic situation.

"There is a gap between the people and the government," Mr. Ludin said. "Assistance in Logar is very weak, and the life of the common man has not improved."

Mr. Ludin also urged that U.S. forces be careful and not act on bad intelligence to launch night raids on Afghans who turn out to be innocent.

It is a common complaint from Afghan leaders. President Hamid Karzai has long pleaded with U.S. forces not to kill innocent Afghans during military operations and said he hopes to see night raids curtailed.

Pointing to the value of such operations, the U.S. military said Monday that a raid in northwestern Badghis province killed a feared militant leader named Ghulam Dastagir and eight other fighters.

Other raids, though, have killed innocent Afghans who were defending their village against a nighttime incursion by forces they didn't know, officials said.

"We need to step back and look at those carefully, because the danger they carry is exponential," Mr. Ludin said.

Col. Haight cautioned last week that civilian casualties could increase with the presence of his 2,700 soldiers.

"We understand the probability of increased civilian casualties is there because of increased U.S. forces," said the colonel, who has also commanded special operations task forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Our plan is to do no operations without [the Afghan army and Afghan police], to help us be more precise."

The U.S. military and Afghan Defense Ministry announced last week that Afghan officers and soldiers would take on a greater role in military operations, including in specialized night raids, with the aim of decreasing civilian deaths.

The presence of U.S. troops in Wardak and Logar is the first time such a large contingent of U.S. power has been so close to Kabul, fueling concerns that militants could be massing for a push at the capital. Col. Haight dismissed those fears.

"Our provinces butt up against the southern boundary of Kabul and therefore there is the perception that Kabul could be surrounded," Col. Haight said. "But the enemy cannot threaten Kabul. He's not big enough, he's not strong enough, he doesn't have the technology. He can conduct attacks but he can't completely disrupt the governance in Kabul."