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Afghan fighting about to heat up

Many insurgents are returning to the troubled south after a winter lull. But U.S. forces have poured in.

April 13, 2008|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — For weeks now, the men in black turbans have been coming. They travel in pairs or small groups, on battered motorbikes or in dusty pickups, materializing out of the desert with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers slung from their shoulders.

With the advent of warmer weather, villagers say, Taliban fighters are filtering back from their winter shelters in Pakistan, ensconcing themselves across Afghanistan's wind-swept south.

"Every day we see more and more of them," said Abdul Karim, a farmer who had sent his family away for safety.

The insurgents aren't the only ones girding for battle.

At the country's main NATO base outside Kandahar, nearly 2,300 U.S. Marines have arrived in the last two months, their presence heralded by the nonstop thunder of transport aircraft and the sprawling tent city springing up on a newly cleared minefield.

The Marine force's final elements arrived days ago and last week began deploying, aiming to bolster British, Canadian and Dutch troops who have been bearing the brunt of fighting in the country's south, considered the conflict's strategic center of gravity.

The conflict in Afghanistan recently has loomed increasingly large in policy debate.

It dominated discussions at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit last month, where President Bush pledged to send more troops and pointedly urged allies to do likewise. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates heard urgent appeals for reinforcements from U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, who forecast a substantial upsurge in fighting.

In Afghanistan, where presidential elections are due next year, opinion surveys consistently suggest that a solid majority of the population supports the presence of foreign forces. But people don't want them to stay on indefinitely, and an inconclusive spring "fighting season" could try public patience.

The first-time arrival in the south of a large force of Marines, the 24th Expeditionary Unit based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., has provided what commanders say is a much-needed infusion of firepower. The Marines have doubled the coalition's air capacity; Harrier jump jets, lumbering cargo planes and combat helicopters line the freshly laid tarmac.

Just as crucially, commanders say, Marines' deployment may at last give NATO-led troops the muscle and reach to choke off the flow of Taliban fighters and weaponry into neighboring Helmand province, consistently the most violence-racked in Afghanistan. It is the country's epicenter of opium production and narco-trafficking, whose enormous profits help fuel the insurgency.

In this unforgiving environment, British troops, considered to be among the alliance's most effective fighters, have been forced to confine their efforts largely to the province's northern tier, making the south of Helmand, with its plethora of infiltration routes from Pakistan, a likely zone of deployment for the Marines.

Although allied commanders express satisfaction with the battlefield edge the Marines will bring, the Taliban professes unconcern.

"We have heard all about these Americans, and we are waiting -- let them come," said a Taliban field commander, reached by phone in the Panjwai district outside Kandahar. "They will learn what others before them have learned."

The insurgents boast that they will blend tried-and-true methods with deadly refinements. Beaten badly in previous large-scale frontal assaults on NATO-led troops, Taliban fighters vow to harry them with more powerful and sophisticated roadside bombs, unrelenting suicide attacks and methodical targeting of Afghans who are helping the coalition forces.

Coalition commanders are well aware that the Taliban will try to steer the conflict toward small-scale hit-and-run strikes, but say it is they, not the insurgents, who will seize the initiative.

"They definitely don't want to go toe-to-toe with us," said Col. Peter Petronzio, commander of the Marine expeditionary force now operating out of the Kandahar base.

NATO officials like to point out that even during a period of resurgence over the last two years, Taliban fighters have failed to seize substantial population centers or hold large swaths of territory for long.

But it's not clear whether the insurgents want to do so; instead, they rely on the classic guerrilla tactic of scattering when confronted, then reappearing when it suits them.

Many Taliban fighters are essentially part-timers; villagers say the ranks of locally recruited insurgents will swell in coming weeks after the opium poppy crop has been planted.

With fighting seemingly poised to escalate, one major worry for the coalition is civilian casualties, which spiked during combat last spring. At that time, human rights groups charged that Western troops sometimes too readily called in airstrikes when under attack, obliterating village compounds that might not have contained only insurgents, if any.

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