Taliban escalates offensive; NATO to expand Afghan force

US troops carrying out an offensive against resurgent Taliban guerillas fought off an attack on their mountaintop camp in Helmand province’s remote Baghran Valley today. Later, US warplanes were called in to bomb a Taliban hideout. An A-10 Warthog bomber strafed the position before a B-1 bomber dropped a 2,000 pound bomb. Local residents said an elderly couple was killed in the air raid.

The guerilla attack, by some 60 fighters with mortars and grenade-throwers, was the fiercest encountered by troops from the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division from Fort Drum, NY, since they were air-dropped into Baghran over the weekend to block Taliban supply routes. The attack followed a bombing raid by coalition helicopters on a Taliban camp in the area yesterday.

The US troops are among a combined force of over 10,000 US, British, Canadian and Afghan soldiers taking part in Operation Mountain Thrust.

More than 600 people (mostly insurgents, according to official sources) have been killed in the past month as guerillas launched their deadliest campaign since the Taliban’s 2001 ouster. That includes about 110 insurgents killed since the offensive began last week. At least 10 coalition soldiers have been killed since mid-May.

Gul Ahmed, an Afghan man living in the small settlement the US bombed, said Taliban fighters had taken it over days earlier and his parents, who were too old to flee, were killed in the airstrike. “My home is ruined, my family is buried in rubble and my animals are dead,” said Ahmed, whose mud-brick home was destroyed in the raid. “Why would I let the Taliban in?”

After the airstrike, US soldiers took over the settlement and interrogated the surviving residents.

“I want them to understand I am very sorry for the loss of the man’s [Ahmed’s] family,” Capt. Jarden Wilson, the US company commander, told residents through an interpreter. “But we would not have had to do what we did if the Taliban had not been here.”

In neighboring Kandahar province, a roadside explosion tore apart a Romanian tank today, killing one soldier and wounding three others. The attack brought the number of Romanian soldiers killed since 2003 to at least four. Romania has about 700 troops in Afghanistan. (AP, June 20)

Meanwhile in Brussels, defense ministers from 37 NATO and non-NATO countries reconfirmed plans to significantly increase the number of NATO-led “peacekeepers” in Afghanistan this summer and to move into the south of the country.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Afghanistan,” said NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, “Let no one doubt NATO’s resolve nor doubt our capability to carry out the mission.” De Hoop Scheffer acknowledged that the Alliance was being tested as it prepared to move into the “relatively ungoverned” south of the country.

This was the first meeting of defense ministers from countries that contribute to NATO’s Afghanistan mission. At present, the Alliance has some 9,000 troops providing “security assistance” in Kabul and the North and West of the country. By summer this figure is set to rise to about 16,000. In addition to moving into the restive South, the Alliance will begin training Afghan army units. (Pakistan Tribune, June 19)

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