- The Washington Times - Monday, December 8, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. military launched its largest postwar offensive against Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents yesterday, sending 2,000 soldiers into a lawless swath of Afghanistan to put down a wave of attacks.

The operation began as Afghan and U.N. officials warned that one of the military’s most disastrous blunders — the killing of nine children in an air strike during the weekend — could drive more Afghans into the arms of the rebels.

Operation Avalanche, in southern and eastern Afghanistan, “is the largest we have ever designed,” Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty told reporters at the coalition military headquarters at Bagram, north of the capital, Kabul.

The enemy “isn’t going to know when we hit, he isn’t going to know what we’re doing.”

“Right now, I’d say there’s four infantry battalions involved” of about 500 men each, Col. Hilferty said. Some Afghan National Army and militia forces also will be involved.

Col. Hilferty gave no details about the operation, including what provinces were targeted.

Fighters of the ousted hard-line Taliban regime have stepped up attacks, particularly against aid workers and civilians, in provinces near the Pakistani border and in Ghazni and Zabul provinces south of the capital.

One Pakistani engineer was fatally shot and his Afghan driver was wounded yesterday when gunmen attacked their vehicle on the main Kabul-Kandahar highway in Ghazni province.

In New York, a report by the United Nations’ peacekeeping arm said security during the next 12 months was critical to the long-term success of Afghanistan’s new democratic government and that more countries must contribute to the fight against lawlessness and terrorism.

“The international community must decide whether to increase its level of involvement in Afghanistan or risk failure,” U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in introducing the report.

Two years after the fall of the Taliban, about 11,700 soldiers — mainly Americans — remain in Afghanistan on combat missions against the Taliban and its allies, remnants of terror network al Qaeda and followers of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

But the air strike Saturday — which targeted a local Taliban militant but killed children playing in a village in Ghazni province — highlighted the risk that a heavy U.S. military hand might only alienate Afghan civilians.

“Every innocent who is killed has brothers, uncles, sisters and nephews — and behind them the tribe,” said Sadokhan Ambarkhil, deputy governor of Paktika, one of the most dangerous provinces for coalition troops and their Afghan allies. “If 10 people are killed, how many people are saddened?”


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