Target Taliban: More than 100 fighters reported dead in first three days of Afghan offensive

Bombing raid is a rare decisive blow against an elusive enemy getting help from al-Qa'ida and linking up with drug lords, report Tom Coghlan in Kandahar and Raymond Whitaker
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The Independent Online

More than 100 Taliban fighters have been killed so far in the biggest offensive against the former rulers of Afghanistan since they were overthrown in 2001, US commanders claimed yesterday.

The most successful action in the three days of Operation Mountain Thrust was an overnight bombing raid against a compound in Uruzgan province, in the lawless central highlands of Afghanistan. More than 40 Taliban fighters were said to have died in what was described as an attack on a meeting of insurgents in a "known enemy camp", including a bomb-making team, local financiers and commanders.

"Coalition forces tracked the development of this meeting until there were more than 50 extremists gathered before attacking the compound," said a US military spokesman, Lt Col Paul Fitzpatrick. "The compound was severely damaged, and we anticipate most of those present were killed."

It is rare, however, for the US-led forces to encounter the enemy in such large numbers. More typical was another clash in Uruzgan in which American and Afghan forces reported killing five Taliban insurgents in a compound near the provincial capital, Tarin Kowt.

Eight pounds of opium was discovered, adding to evidence that the Taliban is joining forces with drug lords in southern Afghanistan. That in turn emphasises how difficult it will be for the 3,300 British soldiers based in Helmand province, the largest single component among the 11,000 troops taking part in Mountain Thrust, to stay out of counter-insurgency or drugs eradication operations. Officially they are supposed to be in Helmand purely to support the Afghan authorities in reconstruction efforts, but a British military spokesman, Captain Drew Gibson, said they were continuing with "cordon and search" operations similar to that on 4 June which produced the biggest British firefight to date, an engagement in which 21 Taliban fighters were reported to have died.

Last week British forces in Helmand suffered their first death. Captain Jim Phillipson, from 7 Para, Royal Horse Artillery, was killed when his night patrol came under fire from insurgents in Sangin district. It signalled that the mission will only get tougher, with the number of clashes increasing as living conditions get worse. Helmand is just beginning what is known locally as the "120 day wind", a savagely hot summer blast that produces week-long sandstorms.

Last week, when British troops patrolled the area around Grishk, an area of known Taliban sympathies, they attempted to win local support through a game of football. Troops diplomatically lost 2-0 to a local school, and after handing out ice cream to schoolchildren, an officer delivered a speech explaining that they were there at the request of the Afghan government to support the people. The crowd response was jeers, followed by a volley of stones.

Mullah Naqib Ullah, head of the Alakozai tribe, and one of the most prominent tribal leaders in Kandahar province, warned yesterday that counter-narcotics eradication campaigns by Afghan government forces in the south were forcing local people into the arms of the Taliban. "The Taliban have encouraged people to cultivate poppy and promised to protect them when they do," he said.

One senior British officer hinted to The Independent on Sunday that a halt, or at least a slowdown, might be sought in eradication efforts in the short term. "We may have to say to the farmers that there will be a period of grace, while we develop the economy to give them an alternative."

Mountain Thrust , which is expected to last for at least a month,is aimed at reversing the gains the Taliban has made in recent months. Since late last year the movement has regrouped across the border in Pakistan and infiltrated its former strongholds in southern Afghanistan. With al-Qa'ida assistance it has adopted tactics which have been successful in Iraq, notably the use of suicide bombers and increasingly powerful and well-targeted roadside bombs.

One Western diplomat based in the south told the IoS that the quantity of explosives appearing in such devices had increased four times over during 2006, with insurgents packing multiple anti-tank mines together to produce bombs which could penetrate the armour of any Western vehicle deployed in Afghanistan. "These devices are certainly the product of expertise that is coming in from outside the country."

The latest offensive follows a similar, much smaller operation, named Mountain Lion, carried out by American and Afghan National Army troops in April in the eastern border province of Kunar. "Mountain Thrust aims to root out Taliban safe havens across an area 20 times larger than that covered by Operation Mountain Lion," said a spokeswoman, Lieutenant Tamara Lawrence.

But while the Kunar offensive succeeded in reducing the level of insurgent activity, it failed to capture or kill significant numbers of insurgents, who simply melted away into the local populace.

Two American soldiers died yesterday when the vehicle they were travelling in struck a roadside bomb in Kunar. Taliban insurgents have also continued to mount terrorist-style attacks in urban areas, with Thursday's bombing of a mini-bus carrying Afghans to the main US airbase in Kandahar the first specifically to target local people working for US forces at the base.