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Southern Afghanistan vital to U.S., says Mullen

In a visit to the front lines, Joint Chiefs chair Adm. Mike Mullen says the southern region of Afghanistan "is absolutely vital to our national interests.'
Image: US Admiral Mike Mullen meets Pakistani General Kayani
U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, left, meets with Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani on Wednesday. Mullen held talks in Pakistan before visiting troops and tribal elders in Kandahar, Afghanistan.ISPR / EPA
/ Source: The Associated Press

Hard numbers tell the story of Col. Jonathan Neumann's soldiers and the hard times they have endured as part of the United States' refocused fight against the Taliban.

Neumann's 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry, has fought insurgent forces 300 times in their first 100 days at Forward Operating Base Frontenac, a dusty outpost deep in the birthplace of the Taliban in Kandahar province.

Three times a day, more or less, they were shot at or targeted by a homemade bomb, attacks that killed 21 and seriously wounded 40 of Neumann's 800-strong unit between August and November. That is among the highest casualty rates for any unit since the war began.

"It took some time for the folks here to realize we weren't leaving," Neumann said Thursday as his unit met up with the top U.S. military official, Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen.

Kandahar, once headquarters for Osama bin Laden and his terror network, is now central to the Obama administration's plans to use American troops to protect major population centers in an effort to win over Afghan civilian support for the war.

There are 30,000 new troops on the way, many of them headed toward south Afghanistan, and Neumann's unit has begun to see small signs that new emphasis on countering Taliban advances near urban centers may be paying off.

Focus on supply lines
A strong focus on central Taliban supply lines around Kandahar city has seemed to take the edge off the constant attacks that plagued Neumann's forces since taking over from a Canadian crew.

The battalion hasn't hit a roadside bomb in nearly a month, Neumann said, crediting better intelligence that has yielded large caches of materials and a learning curve that came with ten times as many forces running more patrols and seeking out more locals.

Mullen said the southern region of Afghanistan "is absolutely vital to our national interests because of the risk that still exists here."

Keeping Kandahar from sliding toward insurgent control is a key goal for American forces, both because of its long history as a Taliban enclave and its importance in the new military strategy pushed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Mullen told the troops that the way to win is to focus on protecting major population areas and ensuring that Afghans can move freely in their own country.

A focus of the coming offensive in the south will be a major highway running to Kandahar City and the increasingly concentrated Taliban bastion of Marjeh along it. Mullen's party skirted the area rather than risk flying through it.

"We can tactically win, but if we're killing local civilians were going to strategically lose," Mullen warned. "I hope more than anything you will be able to focus on the people of this country. That's what this is all about."

Tribal elders complain
Frontenac, an isolated and heavily fortified outpost, was Mullen's first stop Thursday on a helicopter tour that also took him to a much-smaller Marine patrol base and a city garrison where he heard forceful complaints from a group of Kandahar tribal elders.

The five men, dressed in traditional tunics and robes, faced Mullen across a conference table still holding the name tags for five others who did not show. People are losing heart after eight years of war against the Taliban and a U.S.-backed government that has not produced better lives, the elders said.

They told Mullen that corruption at all levels is crippling the country, with bribes required even to be able to pay one's real estate taxes.

The August elections proved that people were losing confidence, one leader told Mullen. He said 2,000 people in his district participated in national elections five years ago, but only 50 turned out in August.

"We have to start delivering results now," Mullen acknowledged. He also assured the leaders that U.S. forces do not plan to stay any longer than needed and want to turn over responsibility for security to local Afghan forces as soon as possible.

The tribal leaders also made a pitch for a hydroelectric dam to go along with one the U.S. built here in the 1950s. Mullen made no promises, but said he'd see what he could do.