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Afghanistan: U.S. Forces Continue Campaign Against Taliban Strongholds In South

U.S. troops in Afghanistan (file photo) U.S. and Afghan government troops have advanced into southern Afghanistan's Khakeran Valley as part of an ongoing effort to flush Taliban fighters out of their strongholds ahead of September parliamentary elections. Hundreds of Taliban militants are thought to have fled into the mountains of Zabul Province after U.S. and British air strikes last week reportedly killed dozens of guerrillas in the area.

Prague, 27 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- U.S.-led coalition forces are advancing into Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan this week in an attempt to prevent guerrilla attacks aimed at derailing parliamentary elections in September.

Taliban fighters have been on the run since a bloody battle last week in the area where the provinces of Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Zabul meet. Teams of U.S. Army soldiers and Special Forces commandos are being airlifted on Chinook helicopters to hunt the fighters down in remote parts of the Kafar Jar Ghar mountain range.

Those mountains form a natural border between Oruzgan and Zabul provinces. The area has been a sanctuary for guerrilla fighters since the Taliban was ousted from Kabul and Kandahar city in late 2001. It includes the town of Daychopan, where there have been frequent battles between U.S. troops and Taliban fighters.

Lieutenant Luke Langer is a member of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. He is also a platoon leader for one team that is now in the Khakeran Valley in northern Zabul Province. Langer says up to 300 Taliban fighters are thought to be hiding in the Khakeran Valley. He says intelligence gathered from local villagers confirms the Taliban is aware of the presence of U.S. troops.

Langer spoke with Reuters before leaving on the mission from Kandahar airfield. He spoke about the dangers of the operations now under way in the mountains of southern Afghanistan: "Certainly, there is a lot of pressure. Our enemy is extremely smart. They are capable. They are well equipped. They know what they are doing. So there is not a moment's notice when we can let our guard down. Every time we leave the gate [of Kandahar airfield], there is a chance that someone is going to hit us with an [improvised explosive device] or a small-arms ambush. Or something. You can never let your guard down here."

As Langer spoke, other U.S. troops kept their marksmanship skills sharp at firing ranges near the airfield. Among them was Lieutenant Christopher Stone, who was recently transferred from combat duties in Iraq. U.S. troops are far more likely to come under mortar attack in Iraq than Afghanistan. But Stone says there are similarities between the guerrilla tactics employed by insurgents in Iraq and Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan.

"The [improvised explosive device] threats, I think, are the biggest similarities between here and Iraq," Stone said. "The ones that we have seen here are probably a little more complex. The Taliban is thinking. They are constantly changing their tactics. So we have to change with them to make sure that we can meet that threat."

The operation to flush out Taliban fighters who fled last week's assault in the Mianshin District of Kandahar Province is part of that effort. A force of U.S. and Afghan troops is remaining in that area to guard against a possible Taliban counterattack.

The Afghan government initially reported that 178 Taliban fighters had been killed in the U.S.-led offensive. Today, however, the U.S. military significantly revised the Taliban death toll. They say they can only confirm the deaths of 77 guerrilla fighters and the capture of 22 others.

Afghan government commanders say some of those detainees are Urdu-speaking Pakistanis who recently crossed into Afghanistan.

Mullah Dadullah is one of two key Taliban commanders still at large after fleeing last week's fighting. He telephoned Reuters yesterday and claimed that no more than eight Taliban fighters have been killed in the past week, including a Taliban commander named Mullah Mohammad Easa.

Many of the militants who escaped last week's fighting are thought to have fled south toward Pakistan. But to get to Pakistan, they must first cross the heavily patrolled Kandahar-Kabul highway.

U.S. military officials say they haven't detected much movement across the highway since last week's operation. One suspected militant was shot dead yesterday east of Qalat, Zabul's provincial capital, as he sped toward a U.S. checkpoint on the highway while wielding an AK-47 assault rifle.