(AP) KABUL, Afghanistan – The 18,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan have begun a new offensive to hunt Taliban and al-Qaida militants through the country’s harsh winter, aiming to sap their strength ahead of planned spring elections, the American military said Saturday.
Operation Lightning Freedom was initiated after Tuesday’s inauguration of Hamid Karzai as the country’s first democratically elected president, Maj. Mark McCann said.
“It’s going on throughout the country of Afghanistan. It’s designed basically to search out and destroy the remaining remnants of Taliban forces who traditionally we believe go to ground during the winter months,” he said.
Maj. Gen. Eric Olson, the No. 2 American commander here, told The Associated Press last month that the mission would include a redeployment to tighten security on the border with Pakistan and raids by special forces to snatch rebel leaders.
Protecting Afghanistan’s young democracy has become the most urgent priority for American commanders frustrated by their failure to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who disappeared here after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
The landmark Oct. 9 vote, which gave a landslide victory to Karzai, the U.S.-backed favorite, was free of the major violence threatened by Taliban diehards, who continue to fight on three years after they were ousted. Attention is already turning to the more complex National Assembly election, slated for April.
The new military drive, which involves all 18,000 American troops here, is also aimed at persuading militants to take up an offer of amnesty from the American military and the Afghan government.
“Ultimately, what we believe these operations will do is they will establish security conditions that allow the parliamentary elections in the spring to occur with the same success” as October’s vote, McCann said.
Lightning Freedom represents a new phase, rather than any shift in strategy, and commanders will continue with “a mixing of combat operations with humanitarian-type operations,” the spokesman said.
However, the United States has several thousand more troops strung out across the south and east, where insurgents are strongest, compared with last winter, and commanders have said they will maintain their forces at current strength at least until after the parliamentary elections.
McCann said the military will also help Afghan security forces combat the country’s booming drug industry, by sharing intelligence, ferrying counter-narcotics units to and from raids and rescuing them if they get into serious trouble.
Karzai says Afghanistan’s exploding cultivation of opium poppies, the source of most of the world’s heroin, is now a bigger threat to the country than militants, and officials are vowing to arrest top smugglers and refiners.
However, the U.S. military is concerned that raids could lead to fresh political instability and will lend a hand to anti-drug raids “as long as they do not interfere with the coalition’s primary missions” of defeating insurgents and fostering reconstruction, McCann said.
A spokesman for NATO forces deployed in the capital, Kabul, and across the north said it would also provide indirect assistance to Afghan counter-narcotics forces, but gave no details.
The number of so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams — small military units tasked with supporting local authorities and carrying out small-scale relief and development projects — has also risen from five to 19 over the past year.
“It’s not just about conducting combat operations. It’s also about connecting with the people here,” McCann said.
The new operation follows Lightning Resolve, a massive security operation begun in July to protect the October election, the first national vote in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001.
In previous winters, the U.S. military has mobilized one or two battalions for sweeps of particular regions, an approach which brought few visible results.