Fresh US troops surge into danger zones

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Nearly 3,000 American soldiers who arrived in Afghanistan to secure two violent provinces have begun operations and are already seeing combat.

Militants have attacked several of the unit's patrols with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, including one ambush by 30 insurgents, Lt Col Steve Osterhozer, the brigade spokesman, said.

The new troops are the first wave of an expected surge of reinforcements this year. The process began to take shape under President George Bush but has been given impetus by President Barack Obama's call for an increased focus on Afghanistan.

US commanders have been contemplating sending up to 30,000 more soldiers to bolster the 33,000 already in Afghanistan, but the new administration is expected to initially approve only a portion of that amount.

The new unit - the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division - moved into Logar and Wardak provinces near Kabul last month and the soldiers from Fort Drum, New York, are now stationed in combat outposts throughout the provinces.

Several roadside bombs also have exploded next to the unit's MRAPs - mine-resistance patrol vehicles - but caused no casualties, said Lt Col Osterhozer.

"In every case our vehicles returned with overwhelming fire," he said. "We have not suffered anything more than a few bruises, while several insurgents have been killed."

Commanders are in the planning stages of larger scale operations expected to be launched in the coming weeks.

Militant activity has increased in Logar and Wardak over the last year as the resurgent Taliban has spread north towards Kabul from its traditional southern power base. Residents say insurgents roam wide swathes of Wardak, a mountainous province whose capital is about 35 miles from Kabul.

The region has been covered in snow recently, but Col David Haight, commander of the 3rd Brigade, said last week that he expected contact with militants to increase soon.

Col Haight said he believed the increase of militant activity in the two provinces was not ideologically based but due to poor Afghans being enticed into fighting by their need for money. Quoting the governor of Logar, the colonel called it an "economic war".

Afghan officials "don't believe it's hardcore al Qaida operatives that you're never going to convert anyway", Col Haight said. "They believe that it's the guys who say, 'Hey you want 100 dollars to shoot an RPG at a Humvee when it goes by', and the guy says, 'Yeah I'll do that, because I've got to feed my family'."

But Col Haight said there were hardcore fighters in the region, some of them allied with Jalaludin Haqqani and his son Siraj, a fighting family with a long history in Afghanistan. The two militant leaders are believed to be in Pakistan.

Logar governor Atiqullah Ludin said at a news conference alongside Col Haight that US troops would need to improve both security and the economic situation.

"There is a gap between the people and the government," he said. "Assistance in Logar is very weak and the life of the common man has not improved."

Mr Ludin also urged US forces to be careful and not act on bad intelligence to launch night raids on Afghans who turned out to be innocent.

President Hamid Karzai has long pleaded with US forces not to kill innocent Afghans during military operations and says he hopes to see night raids curtailed.

Col Haight warned last week that civilian casualties could increase with the presence of his 2,700 soldiers.

"We understand the probability of increased civilian casualties is there because of increased US forces," said the colonel, who has also commanded special operations task forces in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"Our plan is to do no operations without ANA (Afghan army) and ANP (Afghan police) to help us be more precise."

The US military and Afghan Defence Ministry announced last week that Afghan officers and soldiers would take a greater role in military operations, including in specialised night raids, with the aim of decreasing civilian deaths.

Meanwhile new report released today from the RAND Corporation think-tank says a "game-changing" strategy is urgently needed in Afghanistan which would see the additional troops train Afghan security forces rather than directly confront militants.

"It is unlikely the US and Nato (on their own) will defeat the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan," said the report.