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U.S. Says New Troops Push Taliban Away From Kabul

Attacks on the outskirts of Kabul have increased in the past year.
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHANK, Afghanistan (Reuters) -- An influx of new U.S. troops near Kabul this year is reclaiming the Afghan capital's outskirts from the Taliban, but violence would increase in the short-term, the U.S. commander in the area said.

The United States has rushed about 3,000 troops to Logar and Maidan Wardak provinces to defend the capital's southern and western borders this year, the first phase of a planned increase that will almost double the U.S. presence in the country.

For years the areas near Kabul were quiet, with little presence of either U.S. troops or their foes.

But Taliban fighters moved into the two provinces last year, bringing the Islamist militants to the capital's edges in substantial numbers for the first time since they were driven from Kabul in 2001.

Colonel David Haight, commander of the new brigade of U.S. troops in the two provinces, said his force's arrival since January had begun to turn the tide.

"I'm not ready to stick my saber into the ground and declare victory here yet on the security situation, but things are improving," he told Reuters late on April 14.

"We were 300 soldiers here before...but they weren't able to project combat power out very much. With a magnitude of 10, we're now able to spread through the battle space and dominate the battle space," he said.

Haight's soldiers are part of a wave of 3,500 dispatched in January by outgoing President George W. Bush. Since then, new President Barack Obama has promised 21,000 more as Washington switches its focus from Iraq to Afghanistan.

North To South

The lack of foreign troops and Afghan government presence on Kabul's southern and western outskirts meant insurgents were able to "seep" in and find sanctuary in the two provinces, Haight said. The result was a spate of attacks last year.

In August, three female foreign aid workers and their Afghan driver were shot dead in their car as they were driving through Logar, the bloodiest single attack on foreign humanitarian-aid workers in the country in years.

The new U.S. troops have been conducting operations in both provinces largely from north to south in an attempt to push militants away from the capital, Haight said. He rejected claims the insurgents were encroaching on the capital.

"The truth is, the Taliban doesn't have the technology, it doesn't have the amount of soldiers it needs, it doesn't have the capacity to really go into Kabul and take over Kabul. Not even close," Haight said.

One of the troops' main priorities has been to secure the two major highways that run south from Kabul through both provinces. Three forward operating bases and around half a dozen outposts have been erected on and around both routes.

Although security had already begun to improve in the area, Haight said he expected violence to increase in the short term with more insurgents moving in during the warmer months, the traditional fighting season in Afghanistan.

"I believe that we're going to see enemy activity increase for a while. The enemy is going to make a play for this area because it's still important to him and he would like to have influence in this area," he said.