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Afghan Taliban hone hit-and-run tactics, assassination campaign

The Afghan Taliban is waging an assassination campaign against government officials in Kandahar. Their hit-and-run fight marks bid to draw NATO forces into a war of attrition.

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But the Taliban are conducting their own surge. Rebel fighters are flowing in from Helmand Province and Pakistan. They attack at night – unusual against US forces equipped with night-vision and thermal imaging equipment. They are burying bombs ever closer to the pocket fortresses that mark the line where government control, if it ever existed, peters out completely. Not only is the Taliban's history bound up intimately with this area, but Pashmul, sloping off the country's most important road, Highway 1, is also a staging point for Kandahar City.

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This is where US troops try to disrupt Taliban infiltration routes, intercepting fighters and materiel heading east toward southern Afghanistan's de facto capital.

The idea is that the cordon they provide – or even more simply, the extra mile they make insurgents travel to avoid their bases and patrols – will help NATO and Afghan forces behind them bring stability and economic development in more populous areas, undermining the insurgency's very existence.

Frequent attacks on Charlie Company's combat outposts with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades, and antitank guns testify to the fact that the terrain is perfectly suited to the Taliban's brand of hit-and-run tactics. The explosive blossoming of vines and marijuana fields along Kandahar Province's main river, the Arghandab, allows insurgents to come within close range of their targets without breaking cover.

Echoes of old conflicts

Since Soviet times, foreign soldiers have unfondly called this ribbon of vegetation the "green hell."

Back then, there was bloody fighting here between the Russians and the mujahideen, including members of the fledgling Taliban movement, like Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef.

In his memoirs, Mr. Zaeef recalls that: "Many times we moved, engaged, fled, and regrouped, much like the 'Taliban' do nowadays…. We fought on regardless of exhaustion, hunger, and thirst…. We would wear the same clothes for months at a time, surviving on just a loaf of bread or a few dates each day. Many were eager to fight, eager to die, especially young mujahideen like myself."

Nowadays, the greenery makes it easy to bury IEDs undetected. "We have [people] who go out there who look like farmers that are quite easily Taliban," Reim says. They are just as easily carrying explosives in their bundles as food and water. "Everywhere we walk out there could be our last step. Guys are very meticulous [about] what they do, they pay attention more [to] where they're walking. To say they're scared, I hate to use that term, but they're just very aware [of] what they're doing."

In the orchards and vineyards, Taliban bombs alone have killed five soldiers from Charlie Company and wounded 20 – one of the highest casualty rates suffered by any US unit in the war.

A magnet for insurgents

Villagers claim that fighters from Waziristan and Swat, in Pakistan, as well as from provinces in Afghanistan like Helmand, are arriving en masse, sleeping outdoors now that the nights are balmy, concealed by the greenery. One tribal elder said people had started calling the area "Mullah Omar's bed" because of all the militants bedding down.

"The weather is getting better," said the elder, who was interviewed on a visit to Kandahar City and asked not to be named, for fear of retribution. The outsiders "have come for fighting, not to eat. They want to fight the Americans, to disturb them, to make them angry, to make them leave the area. They plant mines everywhere, in every road and footpath."

On the eve of a NATO offensive against Kandahar City, Taliban fighters are intimidating villagers and using more sophisticated tactics to try to bog down troops in a war of attrition. NATO's focus is on securing population centers and delivering services.