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NATO Says No Afghan Winter Lull In Fight With Taliban

U.S. soldiers patrol a mountain pass in the eastern Afghan province of Kunar.
KABUL (Reuters) -- NATO forces said they would not let up the fight against Taliban insurgents during the Afghan winter and coordinated operations with the Pakistani Army would likely hamper the militants' traditional rest from combat.

Violence rose in eastern Afghanistan in the spring and summer this year as cease-fires between Pakistan and militants on its side of the border gave insurgents more freedom to attack international forces on the Afghan side.

But as those peace deals have broken down and the Pakistani Army has gone on the offensive, NATO-led forces see the winter months as an opportunity to apply pressure on the militants.

U.S. troops from the 101st Airborne, which specializes in helicopter air assaults, have already stepped up operations against insurgent positions before the winter fully sets in, their deputy commander told Reuters.

"Usually here, because of the weather, people hibernate. But now because we're the 101st Airborne Division and we have the mobility, we plan on going after those sanctuaries [in Afghanistan] where the enemy may be trying to wait out the winter," U.S. Brigadier General James McConville said.

"The bottom line is, we do not want the enemy to be allowed to rest in Afghanistan during the winter," he said.

But while many Taliban fighters stay in Afghanistan, many others make their way to Pakistan to sit out the cold months.

Even though heavy snows and poor visibility hamper the use of air power, particularly helicopters, as in previous years, NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) sees the winter as an opportunity to strike militarily and forge ahead with development projects to try to win hearts and minds.

'Squeezing A Jellyfish'

But when ISAF has launched offensives near the border in the past, the Taliban and their allies have simply slipped over the into Pakistan and where the Pakistani army has pushed into its border tribal regions, militants have crossed into Afghanistan.

"It was like squeezing a jellyfish; it would poke out somewhere else," said U.S. Navy Captain Benjamin Brink, in charge of a joint intelligence operations center between ISAF, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

What is new this year though is the better levels of cooperation between ISAF, the Afghan and the Pakistani military culminating in a coordinated operation in Kunar Province of northeast Afghanistan and Pakistan's adjacent Bajaur district begun on November 4.

"The Pakistanis are forcing them towards the border and we are blocking the border," Brink told Reuters.

"The Pakistanis tell us they see a decrease in movement across the border in their direction...and we suspect it's down the other way as well because we are performing blocking operations along the passes and we will continue to do that through the winter," Brink said.

The Pakistani military says it has killed more than 1,000 militants in Bajaur alone and there are other smaller operations going on in other parts of the tribal region.

As the winter progresses, the Pakistani operations are due to sweep south along the border and ISAF is preparing similar blocking moves, Brink said.

While the military plans may be in place, much depends on the fragile diplomatic thaw between Afghanistan and the new civilian government in Pakistan, and also on Pakistan's ability to fight militants in its border regions and at the same time deal with tension with rival India in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

In Washington, the Pentagon said attacks by Pakistani militants on supply convoys have had an insignificant effect on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

"While some of our equipment has been interrupted in these crossborder movements, we've still been able to resupply U.S. forces in Afghanistan without any impact on their operations," spokesman Bryan Whitman said.

The route from Peshawar through the Khyber Pass to the border town of Torkham is the most important supply line for U.S. and NATO forces fighting the Taliban insurgency.