The US-led coalition is unleashing more than 11,000 troops to attack militants in the southern mountains of Afghanistan, the biggest offensive since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
The push starting Thursday by US, British, Canadian and Afghan troops aims to squeeze Taliban fighters in four volatile provinces. It will focus on southern Uruzgan and northeastern Helmand, where the military says most of the forces are massed.
The offensive comes amid Afghan and coalition efforts to curb the fiercest Taliban-led violence since the hard-line Islamic government was toppled for harboring Osama bin Laden following the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.
The US military announced Wednesday that an American soldier was killed in Helmand's Musa Qala district Tuesday after his logistics patrol came under rocket-propelled grenade and small arms fire attack. Another coalition soldier was also killed in combat in the eastern Kunar region.
The force of more than 11,000 troops is by far the largest deployed in Afghanistan for one operation since the 2001 invasion. Previous offensives in the country have involved several thousand soldiers.
Major General Benjamin Freakley, US operational commander in Afghanistan, said coalition and Afghan troops would attack "Taliban enemy sanctuary or safe haven areas" in Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces.
"Right now ... they'll be in one area, they'll move out of that area, they'll conduct an attack in another area, then move back to a safe haven," he said last week in an interview at Bagram, the US military headquarters north of Kabul.
"This is our approach to put simultaneous pressure on the enemy's networks, to cause their leaders to make mistakes, and to attack those leaders," Freakley said.
He spoke to AP ahead of an AP embed with the military in Helmand province, where the US is establishing a new forward operating base in support of the offensive.
The offensive, called Operation Mountain Thrust, began May 15 with attacks on Taliban command and control and support networks. Mid-May marked a sharp increase in firefights between militants and coalition forces.
According to US military and Afghan figures, about 550 people, mostly militants, have been killed since mid-May in the fiercest fighting since the ouster of the Taliban.
The fighting included up to 200 Taliban rebels attacking Musa Qala before fleeing from hundreds of coalition and Afghan forces.
Conditions permitting, Thursday will mark what the military is calling the start of major and decisive anti-Taliban operations lasting through the summer. Reconstruction projects will also play a major role in Mountain Thrust.
Military spokesman Lietenant Colonel Paul Fitzpatrick said he could not recall a bigger military operation in Afghanistan in the past four years.
"This is a big operation -- 10,000 soldiers over the course of a month. But this is not a beach landing," he said. "I can't say there will be a major battle on [June] 15, but if there isn't, there will be in the days following that."
Operation Mountain Thrust will involve about 2,300 US conventional and special forces, 3,300 British troops, 2,200 Canadians, about 3,500 Afghan soldiers and air support troops, Freakley said. There will also be coalition air support.
Some American forces will rotate out once the operation is over at the end of the summer, while the British and Canadians will stay on.
The offensive, which the military says it has been planning for 18 months, coincides with a surge in militant attacks in the southern and eastern provinces near the border with Pakistan, where Afghan authorities have little or no presence.
Another major offensive, Operation Mountain Lion, involved 2,500 US and Afghan troops. It was launched in April in eastern Kunar province, and the reconstruction phase of that operation is continuing, Freakley said.
But the Taliban is the strongest in the south.
Since the defeat of the Taliban regime in late 2001, the militants have gained strength, Fitzpatrick said. "I think this summer the Taliban is stronger than they've been in years."
Militants have launched more suicide attacks against coalition troops in recent months, and staged nighttime attacks on government headquarters in small villages. The Taliban campaign, officials said, is intended to convince villagers the government cannot provide security, as well as to test NATO forces moving into the area.
Some of the recent spike in fighting can be attributed to the fact that there are now many more troops in the south, military officials said.
"A year ago there was one infantry company in Helmand. Now there [are] 3,300 British," Freakley said. "The enemy was doing whatever they wanted. Now we're going into areas we haven't been in before, and now there's a backlash."
Major Geoff Catlett, an operational planner for Operation Mountain Thrust, said coalition and Afghan forces would pressure Taliban militants in western Uruzgan and northeast Helmand.
Just north of there, the Hazara people -- a rival tribe to the ethnic Pashtuns, from which the Taliban draws its fighters -- will provide a "tribal backstop" for the coalition.
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