- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 19, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The U.S.-led coalition has unleashed a new offensive against one of Afghanistan’s most lethal militant networks and plans to ramp up operations next year along the border with Pakistan before the American drawdown gathers steam, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan said Wednesday.

Marine Gen. John R. Allen told the Associated Press that the “high-intensity, sensitive” operation that began in recent days was focused on the Haqqani group, a Pakistan-based militant network with ties to the Taliban and al Qaeda. The U.S. has been urging the Pakistanis to clamp down on Haqqani fighters who are attacking Afghan and coalition forces and have been blamed for most of the high-profile attacks in the heart of Kabul.

Gen. Allen would not discuss details of the operation, which began just days ago, only saying, “Every now and again, one of these organizations that has been able to manifest itself on this side of the border is going to have to get some special attention, and that’s what’s happening now.”

In the wide-ranging interview, Gen. Allen also told the AP that the process of handing off security to Afghan forces was going to move faster than initially planned. Afghan President Hamid Karzai wants the Afghan army and police to be in the lead in protecting and defending the nation by the end of 2014.

Asked about Mullah Mohammad Omar, Gen. Allen said the Taliban’s one-eyed, reclusive leader should see this moment as his chance to become a part of the future of Afghanistan. The Taliban has said publicly that it is not interested in negotiating a peaceful resolution to the 10-year-old war, although Afghan and international officials have opened informal dialogue with some insurgents.

“There are elements that work for him that want to be part of the future of Afghanistan,” he said.

Gen. Allen said that while most of the first 10,000 American troops that President Obama ordered withdrawn from Afghanistan by the end of the year will be from support units, roughly one-third will be from combat forces — although not from hotspot areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

“Some of the combat forces are going to come out of the north and west,” Gen. Allen said in his office at the heavily fortified coalition headquarters in Kabul.

Gen. Allen said the U.S. would be leaving medical units, mine-clearance troops, and special operations and control personnel in the north and west to support German and Italian forces stationed there.

The 10,000 troops in the first drawdown include two National Guard reserve units, one Army infantry battalion from an area of Afghanistan yet to be determined, one Marine infantry battalion deployed in the south, and military personnel working in headquarters operations and support units.

“We are thinning so one person will now do the job of two people, or we’ll decide that we’re not going to do that job anymore,” he said, adding that some of the work can be done from the United States.

He acknowledged that some civilian contractors would be hired to pick up the slack, but that “it’s not going to be a wholesale replacement.”

To satisfy Mr. Obama’s mandate to withdraw another 23,000 U.S. forces by Sept. 30 of next year, many more combat units will be tapped to leave, he said.

The international military coalition plans to end its combat mission at the end of 2014. Foreign forces still in Afghanistan after that date are to be in training or support roles.

In July, Afghan forces began taking charge of security in seven areas of the country, the first in a six-step transition process. Gen. Allen said the plan is now for the transition to be achieved in five steps — the last starting as early as the fall of 2013 instead of late 2013 or early 2014, as had been discussed.

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