- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — In its largest offensive yet, thousands of NATO troops moved yesterday into the mountains of southern Afghanistan where hundreds of hard-core Taliban insurgents hold sway — an operation in the world’s biggest opium-producing region aimed at winning over a population long supportive of militants.

Comprising 4,500 NATO and 1,000 Afghan troops, Operation Achilles marks the start of NATO’s major spring military action, said Col. Tom Collins, spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

NATO hopes it can establish security among a population now harboring Taliban militants, foreign fighters and drug traffickers, and rid the region of its shadow Taliban government. That would allow President Hamid Karzai’s administration to make its first move into a lawless region overflowing with the poppies funding the Taliban insurgency.

“What you are going to see in the coming weeks is the enemy reacting to the strategic initiative of the government of Afghanistan and the [NATO] forces it’s partnered with,” Col. Collins said. “It is us moving into [Taliban] areas, not the other way around.”

The offensive is NATO’s largest ever in the country. But it involves only half the number of troops that fought in a U.S. offensive in the same region just nine months ago, when 11,000 U.S.-led troops attacked fighters in northern Helmand province during Operation Mountain Thrust.

Although 1,500 U.S. troops along with British, Canadian and Dutch soldiers were returning to the region, the situation was “fundamentally different” this year, and NATO had a much better opportunity to establish a permanent presence because more troops were in the country.

The offensive “is focused on improving security in areas where Taliban extremists, narco-traffickers and foreign terrorists are currently operating,” Col. Collins said. “Once the security situation is improved, we will begin short- and long-term reconstruction projects.”

Officials estimate there are hundreds of hard-core Taliban insurgents in the area, as well as hundreds — or perhaps thousands — of foot soldiers hired to fight for the group.

Col. Collins said NATO was working closely with the government to prevent civilian casualties, which have dogged military operations here and resulted in strong protests from Mr. Karzai and other Afghans. Up to 20 civilian deaths in three incidents Sunday and Monday can be attributed to U.S. or NATO military action, Afghan officials and witnesses say.

Afghan defense officials said four Taliban insurgents were killed in the first day of the offensive. Britain’s Ministry of Defense said a British soldier was also killed in Helmand, but not as part of the operation.

Helmand is the world’s biggest producer of opium, and a new U.N. drug assessment indicates this year’s poppy harvest could be higher than last year’s record output. The U.N. says Taliban fighters protect poppy farmers and tax the crop, deriving money for their insurgency — perhaps as much as hundreds of millions of dollars.

Aside from offering protection, the Taliban also derives its strong local support from ethnic and tribal ties.

The government has little control over many parts of northern Helmand, and the British troops stationed there battle almost daily with militants. U.S. intelligence officials say Taliban fighters have flooded into Helmand over the past several months, and there are now more fighters there than anywhere else in the country.

“We cannot allow extremists, criminals and Taliban to decide what happens in this country,” Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, the NATO force’s southern commander, told reporters. “We need to make sure the government of Afghanistan with our support … secures the area.”

British troops have been battling for several weeks with militants in the district of Kajaki — the thrust of yesterday’s operation — to enable repairs on a hydroelectric dam there, which can supply close to 2 million Afghans with electricity.

Militants also overran Musa Qala, another district in northern Helmand province, on Feb. 1 after defying a peace deal between the government and elders reached last fall. The Taliban still controls the town, and Col. Collins said NATO forces would not move in until the government approves.

Meanwhile, a remote-controlled bomb targeting a police vehicle yesterday killed one policeman and wounded another in Murja district, also in Helmand, said Ghulam Nabi Mulakhail, the province’s police chief.

In Rome, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica said it has lost contact with its reporter in Afghanistan, and a spokesman for the Taliban said yesterday the group had captured a person posing as a journalist who previously worked for the paper.

La Repubblica has had no contact with Daniele Mastrogiacomo since Sunday. It was not clear whether the person captured by the Taliban was the missing La Repubblica reporter.

“Taliban higher authorities” will decide what to do with them, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, who claims to speak for the Taliban, told the Associated Press by satellite phone from an undisclosed location. “We are investigating whether they are British spies.”

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