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Taliban threaten to launch series of attacks in Afghanistan while Karzai visits US

KABUL (AP) — In an attempt to steal the spotlight from Afghan President Hamid Karzai's trip to Washington, the Taliban on Saturday threatened to launch a series of attacks across Afghanistan — a claim the defense minister quickly dismissed as insurgent propaganda.

The Taliban said their spring offensive, targeting Afghan and NATO military and staff plus foreign contractors, would begin on Monday — the same day that Karzai begins meetings in Washington. A statement in English posted on the group's website said the offensive dubbed "al-Faath," which means victory, will include "ambushes, detonations of explosive devices, assassinations of government officials, suicide bombings and detainment of foreign invaders."

Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak dismissed the threat, saying that the Taliban did not have the capability to launch a series of attacks across the nation. Moreover, he said, intelligence reports show many of the Taliban commanders currently are across the border in Pakistan.

"I do believe it is a propaganda campaign rather than a reality," Wardak said.

Wardak and nine other members of the Afghan Cabinet are accompanying Karzai to the United States. The trip comes as 30,000 U.S. reinforcements President Barack Obama dispatched to the war head to the country. About 4,500 have deployed, with another 18,000 due to arrive by late spring and the rest by early fall.

The military buildup is aimed at routing the Taliban from their strongholds, especially in the south, and bolstering security needed to start development projects and offer public services — an effort to drain support for the Taliban and throw it to Karzai's government.

Thousands of U.S., NATO and Afghan forces just finished a major offensive to oust the Taliban from central Helmand province in the south. They now are ramping up pressure on the Taliban's birthplace of Kandahar province next door.

The Taliban are fighting back with attacks on contractors and government officials. A Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for killing Manan Khan and two of his body guards on Saturday. Khan was a former police chief and current vice president of the shura, or council, in Arghandab district, a dangerous area of Kandahar. Last month, gunmen stormed a mosque and killed the deputy mayor of Kandahar as he knelt for evening prayers.

In Pakistan on Saturday, a spokesman for the Taliban claimed they were set to launch new attacks and had dispatched suicide bombers to the United States. Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told The Associated Press that the attacks would avenge U.S. drone bombings in tribal areas close to the Afghan border.

In his op-ed, Karzai appeared to highlight the role the militants in Pakistan play in Afghanistan. Kabul accuses Pakistan of harboring militants who launch attacks across the border into Afghanistan.

"We have traveled far together, but the international effort in Afghanistan still has miles to go," Karzai wrote in an opinion piece published Saturday in The Washington Post. "We are not yet delivering security to large portions of the country. I have consistently noted the urgency of addressing the problem of sanctuaries, training and other support that terrorists receive beyond Afghanistan's borders. This problem is far from solved."

Karzai also wrote that Afghanistan's partnership with the United States has "not been an easy ride," but that good relations were paramount to achieving peace and stability in his nation. He expressed condolences to the relatives of 971 U.S. troops who have died since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001.

Karzai highlighted positive aspects of U.S.-Afghan relations, but also called for an end to night raids and house searches and stepped up efforts to curb the deaths of Afghans caught in the crossfire. "Civilian casualties are harming our cause," he wrote. Top NATO Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal's leadership "has done a lot to address this, but more needs to be done."

At least 2,412 Afghan civilians were killed in fighting last year — up 14 percent from 2008, according to the United Nations. But the U.N. found that the percentage of civilian deaths attributed to NATO and Afghan government forces had dropped. About two-thirds of the civilian deaths were a result of actions initiated by the insurgents.

Nevertheless, civilian deaths remain a source of friction between the Afghans and the international forces, and they have been up in recent months.

Earlier this year, McChrystal issued a new directive ordering coalition forces to avoid night raids when possible, and bring Afghan troops with them if they must enter homes after dark.

During a visit to Bagram Air Field on Saturday, Karzai received a nearly 90-minute briefing on special forces operations and visited wounded troops. While night raids typically are conducted by U.S. special forces, such raids were not the focus of the briefing, said Lt. Col Tadd Sholtis, public affairs officer to McChrystal.

Later, Karzai spoke to about 50 U.S. troops, thanking them for their work and encouraging them to focus on the safety of civilians.

"When you're out in the fields in Afghanistan alongside Afghan soldiers it is like any other society," Karzai said. "There are families. There are children. There are women. There are elderly people. There are young people and people who are ill. I'm sure that you take appropriate and good care of the situation when you face it. "

Separately on Saturday, NATO confirmed that a service member was killed Friday in the south, but did not provide further details.

In eastern Afghanistan, private security guards opened fire and killed a civilian after the guards' vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Wardak province, the provincial governor's office said. The Afghan Interior Ministry said that another private security company guard killed another civilian in the same area 10 days ago. The ministry said arrests have been made in the cases and that the government had taken steps to prevent the two security companies from escorting convoys on the highway linking Kabul to Kandahar.

On Saturday evening in the capital, Karzai met briefly with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California. She is visiting Afghanistan with colleagues Reps. Susan Davis, D-California; Niki Tsongas, D-Massachusetts; Donna Edwards, D-Maryland, and Madeline Bordallo, D-Guam. They were to meet with Afghan women and female Marines.

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Associated Press Writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and Rasool Dawar in Pakistan contributed to this report.