KHAKERAN VALLEY, Afghanistan – American troops pushed far into a Taliban (search) stronghold in southern Afghanistan's Khakeran Valley (search) on Monday, seeking to reassert control after a spate of attacks raised fears the war here is worsening.
Up to 300 insurgents are suspected to be holed up in the valley, but no contact has been made with them since U.S. personnel came into the area Sunday. Troops skimmed low over the desert in a convoy of two CH-47 Chinook (search) helicopters, a Blackhawk and two Apache attack choppers.
"The enemy has been using the Khakeran Valley as a sanctuary," said Lt. Luke Langer, a platoon leader in the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade. "Without question, I know the Taliban are in the area. ... From talking to local people, we know the enemy are very angry with us being here."
About 465 suspected insurgents have been reported killed since the start of a major upsurge in attacks in March, when snows melted on mountain tracks used by the militants. In the same period, 29 U.S. troops, 38 Afghan troops and 125 civilians have been killed.
Blistering U.S. assaults against nearby mountainous camps last week left a reported 178 suspected militants dead.
At the first village the soldiers came to in the Khakeran Valley, about 130 miles northeast of the main southern city of Kandahar (search), they rushed from the aircraft as a handful of mangy chickens scampered away. A few farmers stood around as the troops searched the few mud huts and fields of wheat and tomatoes that made up their community. Nothing suspicious was found.
A report then came in that a group of suspected rebels had been spotted in the next hamlet. The troops ran back to the helicopters and flew toward it, below the brows of the barren, sun-scorched hills that border the valley.
They landed out of sight of the village, and a small scouting party sneaked off to get a closer view. But word came back that the group of people weren't rebels but wedding guests.
The troops then flew to Mangal Khan, the main village in the valley, which used to house a local police contingent before the Taliban attacked in March and the officers fled.
Once in the village, the soldiers walked into the remains of the local police station, its windows smashed, its walls partly burned and pocked with bullet holes. They then met with village elders, where the American commander announced that they weren't leaving.
"We are here to stay. We are going to rebuild this police station," Capt. Michael Kloepper told the villagers.
Then, speaking to The Associated Press, he outlined his approach to his job in Afghanistan.
"I came here to help the people, but I also came here to kill the Taliban," he said. "I like fighting the Taliban."
The biggest loss for the insurgents was in the three-day barrage by American aircraft against rebel camps in the Miana Shien district of Kandahar province last week. While about 80 militants, including two top Taliban commanders, are still thought to be in the area, dozens of others are believed to have fled.
American spokesman Lt. Col. Jerry O'Hara said troops were operating across the whole region, "taking away enemy sanctuaries."
"The enemy forces are not dumb. So when they get a sense that we're doing an operation in area 'X,' they will move onto area 'Y,'" he said. "It is our goal to be in area 'Y' before they set anything up."