KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan and Western troops have launched a new push into Taliban strongholds on the outskirts of Kandahar, Western military officials said Sunday, intensifying a months-long effort to dislodge insurgents from the southern city they regard as their spiritual home.
The offensive's latest phase, dubbed Operation Dragon Strike, is centered on districts to the west and south of the city where Taliban fighters are deeply entrenched, military officials said.
"We expect hard fighting," Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, a spokesman for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force, told reporters in Kabul. Coalition troops, he said, were "destroying Taliban fighting positions so they will not have anywhere left to hide."
For much of the spring and summer, Kandahar has been the focal point of NATO's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan's volatile south. Most of the soldiers and Marines sent in as part of the surge ordered by President Barack Obama late last year have now been deployed in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, bringing American troop strength in Afghanistan to nearly 100,000.
But after months of trumpeting the planned Kandahar offensive, commanders retooled the strategy to place the emphasis on winning over the populace with better governance. The military component consists not of a drive into the city itself, but rather on choking off insurgents' freedom of movement in and out of the metropolis of more than 1 million people.
The latest offensive — in which Afghan troops outnumber Western ones — is mainly taking place in the districts of Zhari and Panjwayi, Blotz said. He said it was preceded by weeks of so-called shaping operations "to soften insurgent defenses in preparation for the harder fighting," which began in the early hours of Saturday.
"Insurgents will be forced to leave the area, or fight and be killed," Blotz said. "Either way, they will be separated from the Afghans they've intimidated for so long."
The NATO force on Sunday also reported the fatal shootings of two Afghan civilians a day earlier in Helmand province, which borders Kandahar and has also been the scene of major clashes this year. NATO's International Security Assistance Force said in a statement that troops opened fire after the driver of a motorcycle and his passenger ignored warnings to stop, instead accelerating while approaching a "security perimeter."
Explosives are killing fewer coalition troops
Newly compiled Pentagon statistics show a 30 percent rise in the planting of improvised explosive devices by Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan this year has resulted in more wounded American and coalition troops, the Washington Post reported Sunday. But fewer of them are dying from the attacks.
Through August, there have been 1,062 effective IED attacks against coalition forces that killed 292 and wounded 2,178 others. In the first eight months of 2009, there were only 820 such attacks that killed 322 and wounded 1,813, according to the latest figures released by the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
IEDs remain the main cause of troop deaths in the war, with more than half the coalition 531 fatalities so far this year coming from the roadside bombings.
The number of IEDs that were found and cleared before harming coalition forces also rose this year, from 4,226 last year to 4,650 this year. The report indicates that although IEDs remain the major threat to U.S. and allied forces, the multibillion-dollar effort to counter them is having some success.
Aid workers kidnapped: Kunar province Police Chief Khalilullah Zaiyi said a female British aid worker and three Afghan colleagues were kidnapped Sunday. Police chased after the kidnappers and were engaged in a brief gunfight close to the site of the ambush before the men escaped, Zaiyi said.
Missile strikes kill 7: Two missile strikes against a house and a vehicle near the Afghan border in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday killed seven alleged militants, Pakistani intelligence officials said. The strikes are suspected to have been carried out by U.S. drone aircraft, the Associated Press reported. The United States is suspected of conducting 19 such attacks this month.