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U.S. offensive targets Taliban stronghold

THURSDAY, FEB. 26, 2009

Troops’ aim is Afghan capital’s security

JALREZ VALLEY, Afghanistan – Hundreds of U.S. troops pushed into a key Taliban stronghold Wednesday in a major operation to stop the insurgents from infiltrating the Afghan capital from the south and clear the way for the first sustained international aid effort in this remote valley.

Supported by about 200 Afghan soldiers and their French army trainers, 200 soldiers of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., encountered no resistance.

U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan are scrambling to beat back the Taliban insurgency by bolstering U.S. forces, delivering long-promised humanitarian and reconstruction projects, girding for a surge in violence with the end of winter and preparing for the country’s second democratic presidential election in August.

The reactions to the arrival of the U.S.-led force Wednesday, however, ranged from skepticism to hostility. “Down To America” dabbed in whitewash greeted the U.S. column as it pushed into the valley from the American base in Maydan Shahr, the capital of Wardak Province.

Icy-eyed villagers stared as towering Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored trucks and other vehicles towing trailers, generators and guns, protected by two helicopter gunships and two A-10 “tank-buster” jets, plowed parts of the valley’s main track into knee-high furrows of dense mud. The convoy halted traffic for hours and twice churned slowly through the main bazaar, filling the crisp winter air with choking clouds of diesel fumes.

“Everything was OK before they came here,” growled Mohammad Sharif as he sat in his dingy confectionery shop glaring at the American vehicles stopped outside. “We don’t want them to come here. We haven’t needed them for 1,000 years. This is our country.”

The angry comments by Sharif and others seemed to confirm assertions by U.S. officers that the valley, which is about 50 miles south of the capital, Kabul, is under firm Taliban control, and that the guerrillas enjoy strong support among the district’s ethnic Pashtuns, who constitute 30 percent of the Jalrez District’s impoverished population of about 66,000.

“This is where key leaders of the Taliban are located,” said Lt. Tyjuan Campbell, of Palmetto, Fla., of Apache Company, 2nd Battalion, 82nd Infantry Regiment, as he stood outside the abandoned French-built agricultural center that he took for his headquarters.

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