KABUL, Afghanistan – Thirty suspected Taliban were killed on the eve of NATO taking charge of multinational forces in southern Afghanistan in what will be the first time the alliance has conducted land combat operations, officials said Sunday.
A NATO-led force, made up mostly of British, Canadian and Dutch troops, will take over in the south Monday from a U.S.-led anti-terror coalition that was first deployed nearly five years ago to unseat the hardline Taliban regime for harboring Usama bin Laden .
The mission is considered the most dangerous and challenging in the Western alliance's 57-year history. It coincides with the deadliest upsurge in fighting in Afghanistan since late 2001 that has left hundreds of people, mostly militants, dead.
"In one sense it is historical," said British Lt. Gen. David Richards, the commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force .
"But also it is important for the world that Afghanistan is not allowed to be tipped back to its pre-9/11 state and allow a Taliban lookalike government with its sympathies to come back into power," he said.
The NATO alliance has conducted aerial combat operations during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s, but it has yet to conduct major ground combat operations since it was founded in 1949 as a deterrent against the Soviet Bloc.
NATO officials say Richards will effectively become the first non-U.S. general to command Americans forces in combat operations. The alliance's 8,000-strong NATO deployment in the south includes some U.S. troops.
NATO already has troops in the more stable regions of Kabul, the north and west of the country. Most of the forces deployed to the south were moved into the region months back, but until now have operated under coalition command.
The coalition will continue to work in the unstable east of Afghanistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban are also active.
In the latest violence in the south, 30 suspected Taliban were killed over the weekend.
On Saturday, a joint force of coalition and Afghan troops killed 20 suspected Taliban militants who had attempted an ambush in Shahidi Hassas district of Uruzgan province, a coalition statement said. There were no casualties among coalition or Afghan forces.
Afghan soldiers and police killed six Taliban fighters and captured eight Sunday during a clash in southeastern Paktika province's Waza Khwa district, said Said Jamal, spokesman for the provincial governor.
In Kandahar province, three militants blew themselves up Saturday as they laid an explosive on a road, said Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial governor. Another suspected Taliban died Sunday when a land mine he was planting north of Kandahar city exploded, Ahmadi said.
Taliban-led fighters have escalated roadside bombings and suicide attacks this year, and have also mounted brazen attacks on several small towns and district police stations — a tactic rarely seen in the previous four years.
NATO is hoping to bring a new strategy to dealing with the Taliban rebellion: establishing bases rather than chasing militants, and is also hoping to win the support of local people by creating secure zones where development can take place.
But questions remain whether they can quell the violence enough to allow aid workers to get to work in a lawless and impoverished region, where about a quarter of Afghanistan's huge opium crop is grown, and the narcotics trade fuels the insurgency.
Another challenge for NATO will be to stem what Afghan and some Western officials say is cross-border infiltration of militants from neighboring Pakistan.
On a visit to Afghanistan on Sunday, French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said many Taliban fighters were crossing from Pakistan to stage attacks, and urged Pakistan to step up efforts to stop them.
"We need real cooperation from Pakistan, but it seems very difficult for them. The border is a very difficult region and we ask Pakistan to make some more effort to control it," she said.
Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in its war on terrorism, says it does all it can to patrol the porous Afghan border.