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U.S. and Afghan Forces Lead Offensive against Taliban


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep.

American and Afghan forces are on the offensive just before Afghanistan's next election. Afghan security forces say they killed a number of insurgents over the weekend. And the US military has been searching along the border with Pakistan. Reporter Jonathan Landay recently spent five days with the US military along that eastern border. He's senior national security correspondent for Knight Ridder, and he joins us on the phone from Afghanistan.

Jonathan, can you describe where you were and what you saw?

Mr. JONATHAN LANDAY (Knight Ridder): The Taliban adopted basically a classic guerrilla strategy and are waging a classic guerrilla war, and it's become a deadly game of cat-and-mouse. As one of the commanders of one of the units I was with said, he said, `You know, this is a straight-up war.'

INSKEEP: I should mention we're talking about operations that have passed, so perhaps you're in a position to say something about the detail of the operations. How many Americans are in a unit that are sweeping into one of these villages? Is it a large unit or is it a relatively small one?

Mr. LANDAY: No, actually, in Zabul province, there are only about 900 Americans and about 800 members of the newly minted Afghan army for an area that basically is comparable to the size of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, in one of the most hostile, rugged, remote environments I've ever seen anywhere. We're talking about mountains thousands of feet high, plunging valleys, these incredible cascades of boulders and gullies and ravines in which the Taliban can hide and do hide. When the patrols go out and they don't actually physically come across the Taliban, they could always hear them. They monitor their radio conversations. The Taliban have lookouts way high up in mountain caves and crevices with walkie-talkies.

INSKEEP: Last month, 19 US military personnel were killed in Afghanistan. We're told in the last several days, another seven American troops have been killed. Does the conflict seem to be intensifying?

Mr. LANDAY: The conflict doesn't seem to be getting any better, let's put it that way. Despite the fact that the Americans have been taking the fight to the Taliban in their most remote enclaves, the Taliban is seemingly able to operate. They've taken some of the pages out of the books of the Iraqi insurgents in that they've been cutting people's heads off. And so arguable that while the Americans may be killing large numbers of Taliban in these fights in the mountains, that it is not diminishing the energy of the insurgency. And beyond that, American commanders will acknowledge that they expect the violence to get worse the closer the country gets to the elections on September 18th.

INSKEEP: Jonathan, in the area that you were, the remote area in Zabul province, did you get the impression that people would be able to vote in those legislative elections next month?

Mr. LANDAY: It was a very hard thing to get ahold of. There was one village where one of the American officers asked the elders who were gathered there, how many of them had registered to vote, and one pulled out a voter registration card. There's very little security in these remote villages. The Americans' plan is to put American soldiers and Afghan troops in security cordons around voting centers, but it's hard to see how they're going to be able to protect people en route to these very remote voting centers.

The other thing that is very hard to get a handle of is how much collaboration is going on, how much support is being given to the insurgents by the local villagers. One gets the sense that in some villages, the people are actually--they're coerced into feeding and giving shelter to Taliban fighters, but that in others, there's active support, active sympathy for the Taliban among people who have a history of resisting foreign intervention in their country. My sense was that there's a great deal of collaboration going on. Whether or not it's voluntary or it's coerced, I don't know, but my impression is at least in very remote areas, this collaboration is a very important ingredient in what allows the Taliban to continue operating there.

INSKEEP: Jonathan Landay is senior national security correspondent for Knight Ridder. He's now in Kabul. Jonathan, thanks very much.

Mr. LANDAY: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: There's another story in Afghanistan we're following this morning. A helicopter belonging to the NATO-led International Security Force crashed today. We're told that 17 people were killed. They're Spanish troops. The cause of that crash is not immediately known. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.