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U.S. starts offensive against Taliban holdouts

KABUL, Afghanistan – Some 18,000 American troops have started a winter offensive against Taliban rebels in Afghanistan, vowing to eliminate insurgents who could threaten parliamentary elections slated for the spring.

The U.S. military said Saturday that it hoped the new push, dubbed Lightning Freedom, would persuade insurgents to accept an amnesty offered by President Hamid Karzai that could stabilize the country and allow foreign troops to pull back.

“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,” spokesman Maj. Mark McCann said. “It’s going on throughout the country of Afghanistan.”

The operation was initiated after Karzai’s inauguration Tuesday as the country’s first democratically elected president, McCann said.

Protecting Afghanistan’s young democracy has become the most urgent priority for American commanders frustrated by their failure to capture al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

The landmark Oct. 9 vote, which gave a landslide victory to Karzai, was free of the major violence threatened by Taliban diehards, who continue to fight on three years after being ousted from power. Attention is already turning to the more complex National Assembly election, slated for April.

The new military drive, which involves the entire 18,000-strong U.S.-led force here, also is aimed at persuading militants to take up an offer of amnesty from the American military and the Afghan government, McCann said.

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the No. 1 commander here, told AP last week that if a large number of Taliban foot soldiers give up the fight in return for a promise that they can return to their villages, U.S. troop strength could be cut by next summer – once the parliamentary election is complete.


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