updated 7/13/2004 6:49:50 PM ET 2004-07-13T22:49:50

Thousands of U.S. troops have begun a new operation to prevent militants from derailing Afghanistan’s first presidential election, the top U.S. commander here said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

Lt. Gen. David Barno insisted that the switch did not blur the military’s focus on catching al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and other top fugitives. But he acknowledged that he had no firm idea where bin Laden was hiding or what he might be planning.

The operation, named Lightning Resolve, is “kicking off as we speak,” Barno said at his headquarters in Kabul, the Afghan capital.

He said the operation featured enough “offensive punch” to keep militants off balance and could see an increase in targeted, intelligence-driven raids. He gave no specifics.

A 2,000-member Marine force, which has hammered militants of the former Taliban government in a southern stronghold since it arrived in March, is in the process of leaving the country, Barno said.

The remaining force of 17,000 regular and Special Operations soldiers will try to fill the vacuum while intensifying its cooperation with the United Nations.

Strong registration for election
The United Nations has registered more than 7 million voters for the Oct. 9 election, which is seen by many war-weary Afghans, as well as the United States, as vital to Afghanistan’s recovery.

Six election workers are among about 600 people who have been killed in violence this year, victims of feuding warlords, as well as rebels and soldiers — a mix that raises fears that the vote will be neither fair nor free.

Barno said the Marines, who have killed scores of suspected militants in intensive operations since May, had helped registration to be a success.

“Now we’ll be shifting our efforts to helping to build the required security going into the election itself,” Barno said. “We should expect that we have to fight to get to these elections.”

U.S. forces are expected to provide a broad security blanket across the south and east during the election, leaving Afghan police and soldiers to protect polling stations.

NATO has also begun topping up its 6,500-strong peacekeeping force focused on Kabul and sending detachments out across the relatively peaceful north in the run-up to the vote.

The hunt for fugitives
Incident-free elections would reflect well on the U.S. military and deflect criticism that it has failed to net bin Laden or the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The military is also dealing with a widening investigation into allegations that Afghan prisoners have been abused in U.S. jails here.

Barno said the effort to track down top fugitives was “as robust as it’s ever been.” He would not say whether elite troops who tracked former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein before his capture in December were now in Afghanistan.

There have been reports from Washington that bin Laden and his top aide, Ayman al-Zawahri, might be planning major new al-Qaida attacks to disrupt the coming U.S. elections.

Barno said the idea that they were plotting something from a hideout near the rugged Pakistan-Afghan border was “reasonable.”

But he said there was “zero credibility” to speculation that the military was under political pressure to deliver bin Laden before President Bush faced the electorate.

“Those are, I think, the most difficult targets we have over here,” Barno said. “Because of the lack of information we have on them, I think the inference is that they are well-protected.”

He said U.S. intelligence-gatherers were hoping that Pakistani military operations against al-Qaida suspects in a tribal region across the border would yield vital leads.

The U.S. military has praised Pakistan for a bloody crackdown on foreign fighters in its South Waziristan region to coincide with the last U.S. operation, Mountain Storm, which began in March.

A top former Taliban commander was one of about 100 suspected militants and their tribal supporters killed in Waziristan last month.

But Barno said rebels were still slipping across the border into southern Afghanistan, despite heavy losses in clashes with Marines and the use of humanitarian aid to try to persuade villagers to provide intelligence.

With little sign that the Afghan government is able to reassert control in remote border areas, U.S. troop strength would remain at about 17,000 “for an extended period,” Barno said.

“A counterinsurgency strategy does not achieve success in three months or six months,” he said. “These are longer-term, sustained strategies.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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