Monday, June 27, 2005 U.S. Reasserts Control in Afghanistan U.S. Reasserts Control in Afghanistan

KHAKERAN VALLEY, Afghanistan -- Skimming low over the desert in helicopters with guns at the ready, American troops advanced Sunday into southern Afghanistan, seeking to reassert control after a spate of attacks raised fears of an Iraqi-style insurgency here.

The troops hopped from village to village in Khakeran Valley, searching mud huts and wheat fields, meeting village elders and detaining at least two men.

Up to 300 insurgents are believed to be holed up in the valley, about 130 miles northeast of the main southern city of Kandahar, said Lt. Luke Langer, a platoon leader in the 503rd Infantry Regiment, 173rd Airborne Brigade.

"The enemy has been using the Khakeran Valley as a sanctuary," he said. "Without question, I know the Taliban are in the area and I'm sure we will make contact. 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 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 178 suspected militants dead.

Flying in a convoy of two CH-47 Chinook helicopters, a Black Hawk and two Apache attack choppers, about 50 American troops moved up the river valley from village to village, searching for militants.

At the first hamlet, soldiers rushed from the aircraft as a handful of mangy chickens scampered away in clouds of billowing dust. A few farmers stood around sharing nervous, but curious, looks 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 over the radio that a group of suspected militants were spotted milling around in the next village. 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. The other troops waited, ready to attack if the presence of insurgents was confirmed. But then word came back: the group of people were not fighters, but guests at a local wedding.

Back on the helicopters the troops went, and they 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.

They landed on the outskirts of the village and walked in, searching houses as they went. Two men were led out of one of the homes with their hands tied. The troops declined to say why they were detained.

The soldiers walked into the remains of the local police station, its windows smashed, its walls partly burned and pocked with bullet holes. A meeting was called with the village elders. Sitting in the yard in the shade of a tree, next to a rusting anti-aircraft gun, 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."

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