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Afghanistan: U.S.-Led Coalition Reports Success From Former Taliban Heartland

(file photo) Commanders of an outpost of U.S. Marines operating in Afghanistan's southeastern provinces of Khost, Paktiya, Lowgar, and Nangarhar say they have successfully contained the threat posed by Taliban insurgents. Most attacks in this former Taliban heartland originate from behind the Pakistani border from Pashtun areas there. Although threats are expected to escalate in the run-up to the 9 October elections, U.S. officials say much of their attention now goes to the reconstruction effort.

Camp Salerno, Afghanistan; 13 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan's porous southeastern border with Afghanistan has in recent months attracted unusual international attention.

U.S. Marines based at Camp Salerno near the border say this has happened for all the wrong reasons. Although engagements with insurgents have become more frequent, the Marines say that is the result of a more active U.S. military posture.

Officials say Khost and the provinces to the north deserve more attention for the way U.S. troops support reconstruction work and help train Afghan army and police units.

Lance Alford is a colonel in charge of a battalion of Marines at Camp Salerno and other smaller outposts. This is how he describes the threat currently posed by Taliban insurgents: "Weak. They're coming across trying to hit some different places along the border and we smash them every time they come across."

Alford said most insurgents come across the border from Pakistan. Top officers at Camp Salerno confirm a clear increase in enemy activity in recent months. Maps shown to reporters indicate the lion's share of combat activity takes place at or near the border.
"The problem, of course, is that the Taliban have an asymmetric advantage in this struggle. They don't have to be strong, they just have to be lucky." - Olson

Major General Eric Olson heads the task force which oversees the 18,000 combat troops that form the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom. He said this increase in activity has been misunderstood by much of the international media.

"It's been translated as a deteriorating security environment, and it's not that at all. Coalition forces have been much more active, they've been out much more than they have in the past, we've been initiating engagements more than we have in the past, I think the security environment is actually improving. The engagements you're hearing about are engagements that we're initiating and terminating on our terms. As opposed to being attacked, we're out there conducting offensive operations," Olson said.

NATO's top general, James Jones -- himself a Marine -- told troops at Camp Salerno that large-scale threat from the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has been virtually eliminated. At the same time both officials cautioned that this does not mean either organization has lost the ability to cause massive damage.

"The problem, of course, is that the Taliban have an asymmetric advantage in this struggle. They don't have to be strong, they just have to be lucky. If they pull off a spectacular event in a critical part of the nation that sends shock waves around the international community, or scares off international organizations that have signed up to support elections -- we will have a challenge," Olson said.

Olson said that as a group with the potential to disrupt elections, the Taliban are a "force to contend with" and must still be taken seriously.

However, Colonel Alford noted his Marines had not seen "a whole lot of disruption" so far. He said the UN agency in charge of voter registration in Afghanistan (UNAMA) had not been forced to cancel a single scheduled visit in any of the four Pashtun provinces his troops cover. Whenever UN officials report a potential risk, the Marines go in, supported by Afghan forces.

Alford said that voter registration in Khost and surrounding areas is going well and that people are anxious to vote. He also noted that the two outposts his troops have set up both have a successfully functioning Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) attached to it. Alford said one rifle company together with a PRT has been deployed in Jalalabad, a city on the main road leading to Pakistan.

Another company is located in Gardez, again with a PRT attached. Both PRTs, as well as another in the province of Khost itself, have given priority to building schools and digging wells.

Alford says all four companies in his battalion work closely with the Afghan National Army. He says this has greatly increased the trust of the local population in their contacts with coalition forces.