US troops have begun a new offensive to hunt Taliban and al-Qaida militants through the harsh Afghan winter, aiming to sap their strength ahead of planned spring elections, the US military said Saturday.
US Army spokesman Major Mark McCann said Operation Lightning Freedom was initiated after Tuesday's inauguration of Hamid Karzai as president.
He said he didn't know exactly when the operation began and gave no details of any specific moves against militant targets.
``It's going on throughout the country of Afghanistan,'' McCann told a news conference.
``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.''
Major General Eric Olson, the No. 2 US commander here, told reporters last month that the operation 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 US commanders frustrated by their failure to capture al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who disappeared here after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the US.
The new military drive, which involves the entire 18,000-strong US-led force here, is also aimed at persuading militants to take up an offer of amnesty from the US military and the Afghan government.
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 US 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. Commanders have said they will maintain their forces at current strength at least until the elections. In previous winters, the US military has mobilized one or two battalions for sweeps of particular areas, an approach which brought few results.