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US special forces step up Afghan operations

British troops get extra time to phone home at Christmas
London (AFP) Dec 25, 2009 - British troops in Afghanistan are getting an extra hour of free talk time to ring home over the Christmas period, at the end of a year which has seen 106 of their colleagues killed there. Soldiers on operations get 30 minutes of free talk time per week to make phone calls, while they have unlimited access to the Internet. However, this year troops on the front line will receive an additional 30 minutes on the phone from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and another half an hour from the military's satellite communications provider. "This is one very small way that we can thank those members of the armed forces for putting themselves at risk in defence of Britain's national interest," Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth said. Flight Lieutenant Andy Wilson, who manages the MoD's welfare communications, said: "Christmas can be a difficult time for the troops and their families and we hope that this goes some way in making this separation a little easier."

Britain has around 10,000 troops in Afghanistan, based in the troubled southern Helmand province where they are battling Taliban insurgents. This year has been the bloodiest for British troops since 1982 and the Falklands War with Argentina. A total of 106 British troops have been killed in Afghanistan since January 1. The death toll since operations began there in October 2001 standing at 243. In her Christmas Day broadcast to the Commonwealth on Friday, Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute to the armed forces serving in Afghanistan. "I am sure that we have all been affected by events in Afghanistan and saddened by the casualties suffered by our forces serving there," she said. "Our thoughts go out to their relations and friends who have shown immense dignity in the face of great personal loss.

"But, we can be proud of the positive contribution that our servicemen and women are making, in conjunction with our allies." Images were shown of hearses carrying the bodies of British troops through the town of Wootton Bassett in southwest England, where people line the streets to pay their respects -- scenes which have become a familiar sight on British television. Footage was also aired of troops serving on the front line and the queen at the national cenotaph. "Well over 13,000 soldiers from the United Kingdom, and across the Commonwealth -- Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore -- are currently serving in Afghanistan," the queen said. "The debt of gratitude owed to these young men and women, and to their predecessors, is indeed profound."
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Dec 26, 2009
US special forces have stepped up counterterrorism missions against some of the most lethal groups in Afghanistan and plan an even bigger expansion next year, The New York Times reported late Saturday.

Citing unnamed US military commanders, the newspaper said the commandos from the Army's Delta Force and the Navy's classified Seals units have had success weakening the network of Sirajuddin Haqqani, the strongest Taliban fighter in eastern Afghanistan.

Haqqani's group has used its bases in neighboring Pakistan to carry out deadly strikes in and around Kabul, the Afghan capital, according to the report.

Guided by intercepted cellphone communications, the US commandos have also killed some important Taliban operatives in Marja, a Taliban stronghold in Helmand Province in the south, the paper noted.

Marine commanders say they believe that there are some 1,000 fighters holed up in the town, according to the report.

Although US President Barack Obama and his aides have not publicly discussed these highly classified missions as part of the administration's new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the counterterrorism operations are expected to increase along with the deployment of 30,000 more US troops next year, The Times said.

The increased counterterrorism operations over the past three or four months reflect growth in every part of the Afghanistan campaign, including conventional forces securing the population, other troops training and partnering with Afghan security forces, and more civilians to complement and capitalize on security gains, the paper noted.

earlier related report
Troops deaths in Afghan war seen rising with surge
Kabul (AFP) Dec 27, 2009 - The arrival in Afghanistan of tens of thousands of reinforcements to fight the Taliban will lead to a higher death rate among foreign troops, adding pressure on Western leaders to get out altogether, officials say.

Militants fighting for the overthrow of the Kabul government promised to turn Afghanistan into a "flaming tandoor oven", escalating attacks and deploying more fighters to match the Western surge.

Western military chiefs warn more troops will inevitably lead to more deaths as they try to help Afghan security forces take on the fight alone.

The Taliban leadership, believed to be based in Pakistan, has matched the fighting words by promising a surge of its own.

"With the coming of new forces the fight will be further extended and increased," said Zabihullah Mujahid, a purported Taliban spokesman, who spoke to AFP by telephone from an undisclosed location.

Militant forces would "attack the foreign forces as well as their Afghan allies through suicide attacks, roadside bombs and face-to-face clashes", he said.

"They will transform Afghanistan into a flaming tandoor oven for the foreign forces."

America's economic woes could limit resources for forces fighting a Taliban with access to funds from the three-billion-dollar-a-year Afghan opium industry and fighters from Pakistan, said political analyst Ahmed Sayedi.

On top of the drugs money, he said, "people in Middle Eastern and Arab countries are providing funding for the Taliban, and neighbouring countries Pakistan and Iran are arming them.

"The Taliban have huge support networks, while the 30,000 US soldiers coming to Afghanistan will be victims of the challenge to get funding through the Senate," he said.

The number of foreign troop deaths in 2009 is nearly double last year's figure, at more than 500 so far compared to 295 for 2008.

Almost 40,000 troops are set to arrive in Afghanistan in coming months, boosting the 113,000 foreign soldiers fighting under US and NATO command.

Washington's Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Mike Mullen warned during a visit to Kabul this month the violence will get worse before getting better as the Taliban dominate at least a third of the country.

"I told our troops heading here to steel themselves for more combat and more casualties," he said.

The influx -- expected to be complete by August next year, military officials in Kabul said -- is part of a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan that has intensified this year as the Taliban have evolved their tactics.

Most foreign troops deaths are now caused by IEDs, or improvised explosive devices which are homemade bombs, cheap and easy to make, planted on roads and detonated by remote control as military vehicles pass by.

NATO sources have said that for every IED death, there can be up to eight casualties, many with horrendous injuries including loss of limbs and eyes.

The death toll hit a peak of 77 in August, coinciding with a presidential election riddled with fraud, leading to questions among the Western public about why their troops are dying for the world's second-most corrupt country.

President Hamid Karzai won the election, and has pledged to clean up the endemic graft in return for the now-conditional support of the West.

Anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International rates Afghanistan behind only lawless Somalia on its table of the world's most corrupt countries.

The 30,000 extra US troops, and 6,800 from NATO partners, are part of a commitment to keep Karzai in power while he transforms his corrupt cabal into good governance.

The troop escalation will be concentrated on populated areas close to the country's ring road, with one military official saying more combat troops will draw militants "like bees to honey".

"It is inevitable that with more troops there's more fighting, and more fighting means more casualties," another Western military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The corollary in an already unpopular war is likely to be greater public pressure for withdrawal.

US President Barack Obama said he wants to draw down troop levels by mid-2011, but his officials stress this is conditional on Afghanistan's own army and police being ready to take responsibility for security.

Karzai has promised this will happen by the end of his five-year term.

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Bringing life to Helmand ghost town
Now Zad, Afghanistan (UPI) Dec 24, 2009
Hundreds of Afghans in a northwestern corner of Helmand province are defying Taliban death threats to breathe new life into a community Islamic extremists had long turned into a ghost town. In the western sector of Now Zad, close to the main operating base of the U.S. Marines who liberated the town in early December, turbaned men from outlying villages clean debris from the town's roads ... read more

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