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Afghanistan Moves Troops To South, Clashes In North

An Afghan National Army soldier guards a roadside check point near Kandahar. (file photo)
KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghanistan is repositioning forces to the south after complaints too few are involved in major U.S. and British offensives against the Taliban, officials said, even as clashes erupted in the north.

Afghan troops battled a group of Taliban fighters dug into a valley in northern Kunduz on July 22, Defense Ministry spokesman Zaher Azimi said. He said fighters loyal to a wanted Al-Qaeda-linked Uzbek leader had entered the north recently.

With violence this year hitting its highest levels since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, thousands of U.S. Marines and British troops launched assaults in the southern Taliban stronghold of Helmand this month.

The new offensives are the first major operations under U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban and its militant Islamist allies and stabilize Afghanistan, which holds a presidential election on August 20.

The aim of the operations in Helmand is to clear the vast province of insurgents and hold the ground it wins, something overstretched NATO forces have so far been unable to do.

But the offensives underscored weaknesses in the Afghan security forces, with only about 650 fighting alongside some 4,000 U.S. Marines and a similar number of British troops in Helmand, which produces most of the opium that funds the Taliban-led insurgency.

Brigadier General Lawrence Nicholson, commander of U.S. Marines in Afghanistan, complained about a week after Operation Strike of the Sword began in Helmand that there were not enough Afghan troops involved. "You can do the math," he said.

He said many more were needed to build relations with local leaders, a major part of a new counter-insurgency strategy under General Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and identify Taliban members hiding among residents.

Azimi blamed the media for complaints about the paucity of Afghan troops fighting in Helmand and said security forces were stretched to their limit combating insurgents across the country.

He said an extra battalion of about 700 troops was being sent to join the fight in Helmand. Afghanistan already has more than 5,000 troops in the province, he said.

"We are sending an extra battalion to Helmand, it is en route and, with its arrival, the number of Afghan forces will exceed 6,000 in Helmand," Azimi told a media conference.

Attacks Climb Sharply

Afghanistan's army totals about 95,000 troops, with the number to increase by about 5,000 by year's end.

The United States has about 58,000 troops in Afghanistan, with another 39,000 from NATO and other non-U.S. coalition members bringing the total of foreign forces to about 97,000.

Washington plans to increase its troop levels to 68,000 by year's end, more than double the 32,000 at the end of 2008.

Nicholson has said there were also problems with the quality of Afghan police units. Under Obama's new strategy, 4,000 more troops are also being sent to train Afghan security forces.

Violence has spiked across the country since the operations in Helmand began, with attacks against the military and civilians climbing sharply.

U.S. and British troops in Helmand and elsewhere have so far borne the brunt of the Taliban backlash. Record death tolls have prompted questions in London and Washington about strategies in Afghanistan and how long troops should remain.

In Berlin, German Defence Minister Franz Josef Jung said about 300 German soldiers had joined a weeklong offensive against the Taliban around Kunduz, their biggest operation to date, in a bid to improve security before the election.

Azimi said Afghan troops had besieged a group of insurgents entrenched in Char Dara, a valley in Kunduz, on July 22, part of wider operations against militants. He said 13 Taliban fighters and four soldiers had been killed.

Afghanistan's north has generally been regarded as more peaceful than the Taliban strongholds in the south and east but there has been a spate of attacks against foreign and Afghan forces in recent weeks.

Azimi said the increase in Taliban attacks in the north was partly in response to an agreement reached in Moscow this month to allow Washington to fly troops and supplies for Afghanistan across its territory, opening an important northern supply route.

It also followed the announcement a month ago of an escalation of operations by Pakistan's army against insurgents in the tribal areas of Waziristan, he said.

Azimi said fighters loyal to Tahir Yuldash and other insurgents had also moved into the north to disrupt the August presidential poll. Yuldash and his Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fighters were given shelter by the Taliban before 2001.