- Associated Press - Friday, December 31, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A top Taliban commander in north Afghanistan was killed in an overnight raid by Afghan and coalition troops in a violent district of Kunduz province, local officials said Friday, while NATO said one of its servicemembers was killed in the south.

Once relatively peaceful, security in northern Afghanistan has deteriorated as the Taliban, squeezed by NATO operations focusing on militant strongholds in the south, have expanded their reach to other parts of the country.

NATO said a joint force had killed an insurgent and detained several suspects in the operation targeting a high-level Taliban leader in the troubled Chahar Dara district. But the coalition said it had not yet identified the person who was killed after firing on the force. It said the target of the operation was a militant believed to make roadside bombs and suicide vests, and to use anti-aircraft guns against NATO and Afghan forces.

But district chief Abdul Wahid Omarkhel and the Kuduz governor’s spokesman, Mabobullah Sayedi, said the overnight joint raid killed Maulvi Bahadar, who had been the Taliban’s acting shadow governor for Kunduz for several months. They said another four suspects had been arrested.

Bahadar assumed the post after his predecessor, Abdul Rahman, left for neighboring Pakistan, Mr. Omarkhel said.

Mr. Omarkhel himself survived an assassination attempt recently when a powerful roadside bomb detonated as he passed by in a police vehicle on his way to his office. His predecessor had been killed several months earlier in a suicide attack in the neighboring province of Tahar.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in the Afghan capital Friday to speak with the Homeland Security officers working with the Afghan government to secure the country’s porous borders from militants, as well as weapons and drug smugglers. She was to spend New Year’s Eve with U.S. troops and meet with Afghan and U.S. officials in Kabul before heading to the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, the U.S. Embassy said, but would not provide further details.

The United States, in an end-of-year review of its strategy in Afghanistan, has cited advances in its push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Yet the Obama administration, in the five-page section of the review released publicly in mid-December, acknowledged that while Taliban momentum has been stopped in some areas and reversed in others, “gains remain fragile and reversible.”

An illustration of the difficulties coalition forces face in the south came Friday when insurgents threw hand grenades into two homes in the Zhari district of Kandahar in the Taliban’s provincial heartland, killing a child and wounding six civilians.

Zhari, where Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s radical Islamic movement was born just outside Kandahar city, was part of the focus of the U.S. surge of 30,000 troops earlier this year. U.S. troops advanced on the district several months ago as part of a crucial strategy aimed at reducing violence in the nearby city by stemming the flow of fighters and weapons to the urban center.

In September 2006, a Canadian-led force pushed the Taliban out of Zhari and nearby Panjwai in an operation that cost 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back.

The Kandahar governor’s spokesman, Zelmai Ayubi, said authorities were investigating why the two houses in Zhari were targeted in Friday’s attack.

Mr. Ayubi said the child was killed by the blast in one house, while those wounded in the second included another child and a woman. The injured were taken to a nearby NATO base for medical treatment. Two of the wounded were in serious condition, he said, condemning the attack and saying that because insurgents were on the run, “now they start killing innocent people.”

Firefights and roadside bombs against coalition troops are also frequent. NATO said one of its servicemembers was killed in a roadside bomb blast in southern Afghanistan. It did not say which country the casualty was from or where in the south the blast occurred. This has been by far the deadliest year of the nearly 10-year war for foreign forces, with 701 killed in 2010.

Although much of the fighting against the Taliban in recent months has been concentrated in the southern provinces, militants have been expanding their reach, with aid groups citing a deteriorating security situation in other parts of the country, particularly the north and east.

NATO said Friday that several insurgents and a child had been killed in fighting during a joint operation with Afghan forces targeting a Taliban logistics officer in a compound in Wardak province east of Kabul the previous day.

The joint force came under fire Thursday from the compound and fired back, killing several insurgents, it said in a statement, without specifying how many. But it said the force found an injured child while securing the compound, and despite evacuating it to a NATO hospital, the child died of its wounds.

In the eastern province of Khost bordering Pakistan, NATO said its troops and Afghan forces detained several suspected insurgents Thursday, including a man who had been working with the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani network and believed to have coordinated a suicide car bomb attack against an Afghan school and to be responsible for smuggling roadside bomb materials.

Associated Press writer Amir Shah in Kabul and Mirwais Khan in Kandahar contributed to this report.

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