Top NATO general says most Taliban to be cleared from Kandahar by November's end

BRUSSELS (AP) — The NATO-led coalition has overwhelming numerical superiority over the Taliban around the key southern Afghan city of Kandahar and expects to clear the area of insurgents by November's end, a top commander said Tuesday.

Whether the operation's success will last, however, will depend on the Afghan government's ability to offer the area long-term security, Maj. Gen. Nick Carter said.

The operation to firm up security in Kandahar, with a population of about a half million with another half million in the hinterlands, is by far the biggest in the nine-year war.

The city served as the capital of the Taliban when the Islamist militia rose to power in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden used it as his base during the 9/11 attacks. Now, the insurgency draws its greatest strength from the province and the neighboring region, dominated by the ethnic Pashtun majority who form the Taliban core.

Carter said there were 10,000-12,000 Afghan national army troops in the region along with 5,000 Afghan police, besides about 15,000 international troops. They face about 1,000 guerrillas, said Carter, who heads Regional Command South, where Kandahar is located.

Coalition forces have been trying for years to pacify villages around Kandahar City, which the insurgents use to infiltrate the biggest urban center of the south.

Although the international force has always been succesful in clearing the militants, they have managed to return within months because the NATO-led coalition didn't have the forces to hold on to the areas.

"You need to dominate the population and dominate the ground ... in order to secure the solution," Carter said.

He said most of the coalition effort was aimed at clearing the Taliban from the surrounding districts of Zhari and Panjwai and along Highway 1, "where they operate ... with a degree of freedom of action."

"I shan't go into the timing of all this, suffice it to say it will happen in 2-3 months," Carter said during a video conference from Kandahar. "Our expectation is that by mid- to the end of November we will have rid those areas of the Taliban."

The NATO force in Regional Command South consists mainly of Americans, British and Canadians, along with Slovak, French and Belgian contingents.

While acknowledging that the ultimate success of the operation depends on the Afghan government's long-term security capabilities, Carter suggested patience.

"These things take time, and if you give (the government) time there's a sporting chance it will prevail," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Robert H. Reid contributed to this report.