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US close to cornering Taliban forces

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 26, 2003



KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN

An ongoing operation northwest of Kandahar has brought US forces into contact with the largest concentrations of Taliban fighters in nearly eight months.

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Operation Eagle Fury involves nearly a brigade of American Special Forces and elite units of the 82nd Airborne Division, along with Afghan fighters loyal to the central government in Kabul. Spread out over the long Baghran Valley in Helmand Province, companies of US forces have spent the past two weeks moving north from village to village, searching houses for Taliban fighters and weapons caches. They've rounded up more than a dozen suspected Taliban fighters.

If the US operation succeeds, American forces will have cornered Taliban forces - and perhaps some top Taliban leaders - in a high-walled valley with few opportunities of escape. Like Operation Mongoose, set in the Adi Ghar mountains southeast of Kandahar late last month, Eagle Fury started with a foiled Taliban attempt to ambush US forces. In four or five clashes that followed, the US encountered anywhere from five to a couple dozen Taliban at a time.

Until recently, contact with the enemy for many US soldiers has been limited to rocket attacks on US bases - most of which miss entirely - or the occasional homemade bomb or land mine placed near US bases. The growing aggressiveness by guerrillas is a relief for US forces, who greet the possibility of a real engagement with the Taliban as a possible turning point in the war.

"We want them to attack us, so we can engage them and destroy them," says one Special Forces soldier from the US firebase at Spin Boldak, who took part in the initial firefight that led to Operation Mongoose. "If we can draw them out of their hiding places, we can destroy them."

While the Taliban seem to be regrouping, it's not clear whether their growing assertiveness is a sign of confidence or desperation.

US military sources, for one, say the Taliban are entering a field of battle where US forces have a distinct advantage.

"The past two operations suggest that the level of the training and performance seems to be worse than ever," says Maj. Greg Liska, commander of the Civil Military Operations Command at the US base at Kandahar Airport. "We've had a number of people attempting to lay mines who have blown themselves up." Civil- affairs soldiers under Major Liska's command have accompanied US combat forces during Operation Eagle Fury, assessing humanitarian needs of the local population.

Afghan commander Abdul Razzaq Achakzai, head of border security in Spin Boldak, agrees that the enemy seems to be getting weaker rather than stronger. "They can cross the border stealthily, like a thief in the night, and then escape, but they cannot come out in force so that people can see them," says Commander Achakzai. "And the people help us whenever the enemy of Afghanistan comes to disturb us. They are tired of war, and they don't want to help the enemy."

US soldiers say they are adjusting to the rugged terrain and complicated tribal societies where alliances quickly change. "We are getting better at what we do, and we have a better understanding of how their culture works," says the US Special Forces soldier.

Still, past US operations haven't been all successful rounding up fighters. In Operations Anaconda last spring, the bulk of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, which the Americans thought were cornered in the Shah-e Kot mountains, managed to escape. And the Taliban's guerrilla tactics in ensuing months, such as firing rockets at American bases, have also met with little effective US response.

Another frustration remains a thorn to US forces along the Pakistani border. "We know [the Taliban] are getting safe haven in Pakistan," says the soldier, "but we can't cross that line and chase them, so it causes some problems for us."

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