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U.S. forces readied to launch winter offensive

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Thousands of U.S. soldiers are preparing an operation against Taliban insurgents to preempt an expected spring offensive which could upset plans for Afghan parliamentary elections, a senior American general said Tuesday.

The operation will begin within days of the Tuesday inauguration of Hamid Karzai as Afghanistan's first directly elected president -- an event that itself is a potential target, Maj. Gen. Eric Olson said.

"There could be an unhappy coincidence between the enemy's spring offensive and the parliamentary elections," Olson said at the main U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul.

He said the aim is to tighten the Afghan-Pakistan border by sending special forces on raids against rebel leaders.

Olson said the offensive -- which will cover the entire U.S.-led force of about 18,000 -- would attempt to disturb militants in their "winter sanctuaries" so that they will be in no shape to move against the parliamentary vote slated for April.

The military will be "attempting to attack him in those sanctuaries while he's resting and refitting, staging and planning," said Olson, the operational commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

The new operation, dubbed Lightning Freedom, follows Lightning Resolve, a security push begun in July to protect the October presidential election, the first vote since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Forty people were reported killed on election day, Oct. 9, but Taliban holdouts failed to make good on threats to assault polling stations across the country.

More than 8 million Afghans voted, handing Karzai a majority that foreign donors bankrolling the country's democratic rebirth hope will bring stability after more than 20 years of fighting.

Still, violence continues to plague the south and east, where militants are strongest. A roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers in Uruzgan province last week, and American officials say militants continue to cross to and from neighboring Pakistan.

To reinforce the frontier, Olson said the U.S. military would establish several new camps close to the border. He said Afghan forces would also reposition "along and astride" routes used by militants. And he promised to strengthen cooperation with Pakistani forces across the border.

U.S. special forces already have been moved to near the main Torkham border crossing in Nangarhar province, where the U.S. military recently conducted raids on suspected al-Qaida targets, Olson said.

He said there was concern militants could attempt a "spectacular act" during Karzai's inauguration. The event is expected to attract officials from around the world, though it is unclear who will represent the U.S. government.

Still, the general said the military had no information on any specific plans to attack the ceremony.


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