Afghans and NATO launch offensive in Taliban heartland

KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan and NATO forces are attacking Taliban strongholds around the key southern city of Kandahar, in a new bid to bolster control of the area, but without the scale or fanfare of a similar bid earlier this year.

Operation “Dragon Strike” began on Saturday with air strikes and ground operations in the Taliban heartland around Kandahar, the Afghan Defense Ministry and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.

Many of the areas had already seen weeks of fierce fighting as a surge of foreign troops pushed across the region trying to reclaim ground from insurgents, while the government had also been making a push for “hearts and minds.”

The low-key announcement of the offensive — after weeks of fighting in several of the targeted areas, and after it had officially begun — contrasted strongly with the fanfare surrounding an operation in Marjah in neighboring Helmand province at the start of the year.

NATO forces advertised that push long before it began, and provided almost daily updates on progress. But after claiming the town there was little success in getting a much-vaunted “government in a box” up and running in Marjah.

The Taliban also crept back into surrounding areas.

Extremely low turnout in the September 18 parliamentary election sealed the impression of limited success in Marjah. Both Afghans and NATO now appear to be taking a more cautious approach.

“Most of our focus is on having a dialogue with people, good governance and development projects. It has been going on for weeks now,” said Zahir Azimi, a defense ministry spokesman.

“This is a small operation,” he added, when asked to compare the fighting in the districts of Zhari, Panjwai and Arghandab with the Marjah offensive in February.

The drive comes as civilian and military casualties in Afghanistan have surged to their highest since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001.

An ISAF spokesman said 18 American troops have been killed in combat in Kandahar province since August 3O. He had no figures for casualties since the latest operation began on Saturday.

U.S. President Barack Obama is to review his Afghan war strategy in December, which is increasingly unpopular within the United States. Winning control of Kandahar, the province that produced the Taliban, is vital to Obama’s war strategy.

NATO spokesman General Josef Blotz said on Sunday the force “expects hard fighting” in coming days.

“Once this is done, insurgents will be forced to leave the area or fight and be killed. Either way they will be separated from the Afghans they have intimidated for so long,” he said.

There are now almost 150,000 foreign troops fighting a growing Taliban-led insurgency, supporting about 300,000 Afghan security forces. Obama ordered in an extra 30,000 troops late last year, the last units of which arrived this month.

(Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sugita Katyal)

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