By Associated Press Writer
updated 7/1/2010 4:19:59 PM ET 2010-07-01T20:19:59

U.S. and Afghan troops seized a key Taliban figure after a four-hour gunbattle — part of a strategy that NATO officials said Thursday had eliminated more than 100 insurgent leaders in the past four months.

The campaign to disrupt the Taliban's midlevel command structure is moving into high gear just as a new Afghan government is poised to offer economic incentives to lure low-level foot soldiers off the battlefield — a twin approach to pressure the Taliban's top echelon into seeking peace.

The campaign against the Taliban leadership — a strategy used successfully against both Sunni and Shiite insurgents in Iraq — is intensifying at a time of rising violence and growing concern in Washington and other allied capitals over the direction of the war. The 120,000-member NATO-led force is awaiting the arrival of a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, who has warned of hard fighting this summer.

Surprise attacks against the Taliban leadership are carried out mostly by U.S. special operations troops, whose numbers in Afghanistan have tripled in the past year. Between April 1 and June 25, 110 Taliban figures, including shadow governors, commanders and their deputies and bomb makers, have been captured and 32 killed, according to Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an operations spokesman at NATO headquarters in Kabul.

He said another 500 insurgents have been killed or apprehended in the nearly daily operations — largely in the south where the Taliban are strongest.

'Difficulty replacing'
"Intelligence is reporting that the insurgency is having difficulty replacing the leaders who have been taken off the battlefield," NATO chief spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz said. "One insurgent recently captured told the assault force that captured him that he was ... tired of running."

The latest reported capture happened Wednesday night when a prominent local Taliban leader was seized and 31 insurgents killed at a compound in the remote Baghran district in the northern part of Helmand province.

Taliban fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns before troops ordered a precision airstrike on their compound. Troops seized several other insurgents as well as dozens of automatic weapons, grenade launchers and 20 pounds of opium, NATO said. There were no Afghan or NATO casualties, the alliance said.

NATO routinely declines to identify captured Taliban leaders for security reasons. But Dawood Ahmadi, spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, said those captured included Mullah Nazar Mohammad, the Taliban district chief of Now Zad, and Mullah Malang, a Taliban commander in Baghran.

Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi denied that Malang, a longtime insurgent leader in the area, had been apprehended. "He is safe and sound with us," he told The Associated Press in Kandahar, the group's birthplace.

Other strikes in the south include the May 30 air attack that killed Haji Amir, one of the two most senior Taliban leaders in the Panjwai district of Kandahar province who led dozens of attacks after escaping from jail in June 2008. Last week, a local Taliban commander, Zia Agha, and his deputy known only as Faizullah were killed in an air strike as they planted a roadside bomb near Kandahar.

Focus on Helmand, Kandahar
Special operations raids are focused on the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where NATO and Afghan forces are ramping up security. On Thursday, they opened 11 checkpoints to ring Kandahar city, hoping to prevent Taliban insurgents from traveling into the city where they have assassinated and attacked Afghan officials and government supporters.

As efforts to dismantle the Taliban's midlevel leadership structure intensify, the Afghan government is working to persuade the lower-level Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons and return to their villages. This week, President Hamid Karzai signed a decree to launch the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program, offering protection, jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages.

NATO officials and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a top Karzai adviser who crafted the program, have said that insurgents in seven of Afghanistan's 34 provinces — Herat, Helmand, Uruzgan, Paktia, Baghlan, Balkh and Day Kundi — have expressed interest in signing up for the reintegration program. To join, insurgents must renounce violence, declare their respect for the Afghan constitution and sever ties with al-Qaida or other terrorist networks.

"The future of the reintegration process is promising," Maj. Gen. Philip Jones, director of a reintegration unit at NATO headquarters in Kabul, told reporters Thursday. "There continue to be small pockets of reintegration occurring around the country and a few larger groups are starting to express interest in it as well. People realize that this program is a benefit to entire communities."

Insurgents are being urged to give up the fight at a time that violence is on the rise. Convinced that they are winning, the Taliban say they have no interest in reconciliation talks or the reintegration program, which Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said amount to empty promises from Karzai's "puppet" government.

Taliban: 'No interest in reconciliation'
"We have no interest in reconciliation with the enemy who has occupied Afghanistan or the puppets supporting foreign forces," Mujahid told AP. "We don't care about our own lives. For the past nine years, we have sacrificed for the Islamic system and the freedom of Afghans."

Not all special operations raids have been conducted in the south.

In April, Afghan and international troops in the northern province of Kunduz killed the Taliban's shadow provincial governor, Nur Mohammed, as well as an insurgent commander, two advisers and a deputy commander. A month later, a joint force killed the shadow governor of Baghlan province, his deputy and his successor in a series of operations.

Last week, the top Taliban commander for Logar province, Ghulam Sakhi, was killed while trying to escape a compound disguised as a woman, NATO said.

Associated Press Writers Mirwais Khan and Heidi Vogt in Kandahar and Amir Shah in Kabul contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Afghanistan, seen through a Humvee window

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  1. Spc. Clinton Eaton of Albuquerque, N.M., and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division reads a book during a break at Patrol Base Machine in Herat Province, Afghanistan, on June 24. Most of the pictures in this slideshow were made from inside Humvees, which have served as the primary ground transport for U.S. troops starting in the 1980s, or newer M-ATV vehicles. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Afghan schoolgirls seen through the window of a Humvee wave to a passing American convoy June 26 in downtown Herat. Historic Herat, one of Afghanistan's largest cities, is bustling these days and is considered safe by American and Italian troops tasked with securing the region. They say they've mostly seen attacks in rural areas of the province. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A decorated motorcycle taxi is seen through the window of a Humvee on June 26 in downtown Herat. Photojournalist Chris Hondros told msnbc.com via an email from Afghanistan: "I've long been fascinated by the view through the window of a Humvee as it rolls through the cities or deserts of Afghanistan and Iraq." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Pedestrians walk on the side of the road on June 26 in Herat. Photographer Chris Hondros: "The view affords a paradoxical kind of intimacy; even rural Afghans are inured by now by the sight of big American armored vehicles moving through their midst, often barely looking up while they rumble by. So for a journalist, it's a unique opportunity to observe something much harder to witness while out in the open: Afghans going about their mundane, day-to-day lives. It's a precious window on a world that remains opaque and mysterious to most Americans." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Goats and sheep graze in a field June 26 in the village of Deh Moghol, Afghanistan. The 4th Brigage of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division has been working for nearly a year in Herat province, a historic crossroads near the Iranian and Turkmenistan borders. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. An Afghan man rides a donkey June 22 in the Khushi Khona area of Herat Province. In Chris Hondros' recent experience, the U.S. military is using vehicles largely to get from point to point, but not for patrols. "American forces aren't often in any type of vehicle nowadays: engaging the populace face-to-face is an important part of the counterinsurgency philosophy espoused by General Petraeus, so there are a lot more walking patrols that leave the vehicles on base altogether." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Local transport: Afghanistan National Army soldiers in a pickup truck prepare to go on patrol with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division June 29 in Bala Murghab. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Spc. Franky Cava of McDonough, Ga., and the 82nd Airborne Division sits in the passenger seat of a Humvee on Patrol Base Machine at sundown June 24 in Herat Province. It could be the end of an era for Humvees, as Hondros notes: "The Humvees are liked for old time's sake but most troops realize their days have passed." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A soldier in the 1-71 Cavalry of the 10th Mountain Division walks down the hood of an M-ATV vehicle, the heavily-armored successor to the Humvee, on June 15 at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The M-ATV and other mine-resistant vehicles have almost completely replaced the venerable Humvee for transporting American forces in Afghanistan, using innovations like thicker, irregularly-shaped windows to help protect troops from deadly roadside bombs and other explosions. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A line of small motorized taxis is seen through the window of a M-ATV vehicle. Getty Images photojournalist Chris Hondros is not a big fan of the M-ATV as a photography platform: "I started shooting through the windows of MAT-Vs, too, but it's much harder, as the windows are smaller, thicker, sit higher on the vehicle and are irregularly shaped." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A butcher shop in Kandahar. This M-ATV window is a least easier to shoot through than an MRAP's, and (far more importantly) the M-ATV has advantages for the troops, according to Hondros: "The troops like the M-ATVs, generally - they're well-designed and incredibly tough against roadside bombs. Another, larger vehicle called the MRAP is less popular; though also tough, its hulking mass is hard to navigate around Afghanistan's pitted dirt roads. I don't like them either, as MRAP windows are covered by horizontal steel slats, making my little photo project impossible." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A local goods truck in Kandahar. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A man walks by construction material shops in Kandahar. (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A guard tower and the earthen wall of a military base are seen through the window of a M-ATV vehicle. One last note from photographer Chris Hondros, on the decline of the venerable Humvee: "My beloved Humvees are becoming an endanged vehicular species in Afghanistan; when I was embedded near Kandahar earlier in the month, they had no Humvees at all. But here in the northwest, where I am now, the rough-and-ready 82nd Airborne are still using them sometimes, so I've been able to continue my project." (Chris Hondros / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: US Army Paratroopers Operate In Northwest Afghanistan
    Chris Hondros / Getty Images
    Above: Slideshow (14) Afghanistan, seen through a Humvee window
  2. Image: AFGHANISTAN-UNREST-SOCIETY
    Massoud Hossaini / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (80) Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads - 2013
  3. Image: AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN-BORDER
    Noorullah Shirzada / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (139) Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads - 2012
  4. Image:
    Rahmat Gul / AP
    Slideshow (234) Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads - 2011
  5. Image:
    Altaf Qadri / AP
    Slideshow (158) Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads - 2010
  6. Image: U.S. army soldiers from Task Force Denali 1-40 Cav reposition a 105mm Howitzer during snowfall at FOB Wilderness in Paktya province
    Zohra Bensemra / Reuters
    Slideshow (88) Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads - 2009: Troops
  1. Image: Afghan protesters shout slogans during a protest in Kabul
    Ahmad Masood / Reuters
    Slideshow (31) Afghanistan: Nation at a crossroads - 2009: Civilians

Video: Renewed attention on Afghanistan

  1. Transcript of: Renewed attention on Afghanistan

    MADDOW: As expected today, the Senate confirmed General David Petraeus to command the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan . The vote was unanimous. It`s possible that if they could have knighted him or given him the key to the city , senators would have gladly done that, too. General Petraeus warned lawmakers during his testimony this week that fighting in Afghanistan will likely get more intense. Today, Taliban fighters mounted what turned out to be an ill-advised assault on a well- protected NATO base near Jalalabad . Eight fighters were killed. This month is also turning out to be the deadliest month yet in Afghanistan for western troops. The Web site iCasualties reporting 103 allied troops killed in Afghanistan in June. Sixty-one were Americans. We will bring you a first-hand look at the situation in Afghanistan in a few days when we take the show to that country. We`ll be traveling with NBC `s Richard Engel and broadcasting live from Kabul next Tuesday and Wednesday at 9:00 p.m . Eastern. Before then, we`ll post photos and video on our blog. We hope you`ll tune in next week to those special shows and check out Maddowblog . MSNBC.com in

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