By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
April 30, 2007 – Ongoing NATO military and reconstruction operations are helping erode Taliban militants' power in southern Afghanistan, a senior Dutch officer said today. The behavior of the Afghan people is perhaps the most convincing indicator of the Taliban's waning influence in southern Afghanistan, Royal Netherlands Army Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon told Pentagon reporters during a satellite-carried news conference.
"We experience success every time (International Security Assistance Force) troops stand back after securing an area and witness local elders extend their authority," said van Loon, the commander of NATO's International Security Assistance Force Regional Command South. His command boasts 11,500 troops, including 2,000 Dutch forces.
That success is evident "when religious scholars and elders feel safe enough to freely express their disdain for Taliban militants," the general said.
Afghan village leaders are telling followers "that Taliban extremists can no longer be referred to as Muslims, due to their ruthless actions," van Loon said.
Security is being provided by NATO's Operation Achilles, launched March 6 against Taliban fighters operating in northern Helmand province, van Loon said.
An increasingly flexible and robust Afghan National Army and Police force is adding to the Taliban's discomfort, van Loon said, noting more than 1,000 Afghan soldiers and police were deployed to Helmand province in April.
It's also reported that many Afghans, with minimal government or NATO assistance, are themselves ejecting the Taliban from their areas, van Loon noted.
However, military action is sometimes the only way to defeat the Taliban, as the militants "are too fanatic for compromises," he said. Taliban extremists were "severely diminished" in the Panjwai and Zari districts of Kandahar province after operations Medusa and Bazooka, which were conducted last summer and into the fall and winter, van Loon said.
After repeated poundings during stand-up fights with NATO and Afghan security forces, he said, the Taliban have taken to fading into the shadows and employing hit-and-run guerrilla tactics. The enemy is increasingly using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers, he said.
"We need to maintain pressure and continue to conduct stabilization operations in the south on our terms," van Loon said.
He said Operation Achilles was initiated to set security conditions for one of Afghanistan's largest reconstruction projects, the Kajaki Dam. Once completed, the dam will increase electric power for residents, industries and commerce in southern Afghanistan, he said, and it also will improve the water supply for community and irrigation purposes.
The general's troops have fought many successful engagements against the Taliban since van Loon took command in November, he said, and noted he is slated to depart Afghanistan soon.
"They have demonstrated professionalism and restraint during the planning and execution of difficult and complex counterinsurgency missions," van Loon said of his troops. "I commend them all and want each and every soldier under my command to know that it was an honor for me to lead them."
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