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A first: Taliban begin year on backfoot

Signs of change have sprouted this spring amid the lush fields and mud-brick villages of southern Afghanistan.

world Updated: Apr 17, 2011 23:41 IST

Signs of change have sprouted this spring amid the lush fields and mud-brick villages of southern Afghanistan.

In Sangin, a riverine area that has been the deadliest part of the country for coalition troops, a journey between two bases that used to take eight hours because of scores of roadside bombs can now be completed in 18 minutes.

In Zhari district, a once-impenetrable insurgent redoubt on the western outskirts of Kandahar city, residents benefiting from US-funded jobs recently hurled a volley of stones at Taliban henchmen who sought to threaten them.

And in Arghandab district, a fertile valley on Kandahar's northern fringe where dozens of US soldiers have been felled by homemade mines, three gray-bearded village elders made a poignant appearance at a memorial service last month for an Army staff sergeant killed by one of those devices.

Those indications of progress are among a mosaic of developments that point to a profound shift across a swath of Afghanistan that has been the focus of the American-led military campaign: For the first time since the war began nearly a decade ago, the Taliban is commencing a summer fighting season with less control and influence of territory in the south than it had the previous year.

"We start this year in a very different place from last year," Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.

The security improvements have been the result of intense fighting and the use of high-impact weapons systems not normally associated with the protect-the-population counterinsurgency mission.

In Sangin, Zhari and Arghandab - the three most insurgent-ridden districts in the south - the cost in American lives and limbs since the summer has been far greater than in any other part of the country. More than 40 Marines have been killed in Sangin in the past nine months, and three dozen more have lost both legs.

The question of the moment for Petraeus and his subordinates is whether the gains will hold as Taliban commanders, laden with cash and munitions, stream across the desert from Pakistan, where there has been considerably less progress in denying them sanctuary.

Senior US officers said they expect the insurgents to shift tactics. Instead of trying to take on American troops directly, as they did in Sangin and Zhari in the fall, the Taliban will attempt to plant more homemade explosives, recruit a new cadre of suicide bombers and assassinate Afghan officials - as it did late last week, killing the police chief in Kandahar province. The result, according to an internal military projection, could be a far more violent summer.

Petraeus and other US commanders say they are hopeful that Afghan civilians will feel confident enough to report Taliban activity to US or Afghan troops.

(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post)