In the past week, NATO and Afghan forces have shifted from guarding aid workers and sipping tea with village elders to actively hunting down Taliban fighters in marijuana fields and pomegranate orchards laced with booby traps, The New York Times reported. Sixteen U.S. soldiers have been killed so far.
The long-awaited offensive in an extremely violent area dubbed "The Heart of Darkness" was supposed to begin in June. It was downgraded to a joint civil-military effort after Afghan leaders said they feared high civilian casualties and NATO forces clashed with the Taliban in the small city of Marja, according to the Times.
In a sign of allied hopes the offensive will put new pressure on the Taliban, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, told reporters the Taliban are trying to re-establish contact with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"There are very high-level Taliban leaders who have sought to reach out to the highest levels of the Afghan government and, indeed, have done that," the Times quoted Petraeus as saying after he toured a U.S.-run detention center that holds suspected insurgents.
Petraeus has been encouraging an Afghan rapprochement with nominally moderate elements in the Taliban since he took command in Afghanistan, essentially the resumption of contacts that were broken off earlier this year after senior Taliban leaders were captured in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, in rare attacks about 140 miles to the north, manned NATO aircraft crossed into Pakistan and killed more than 50 people in retaliation for an insurgent attack in a remote area near the eastern Afghan province of Khost, The Associated Press reported.
Usually, unmanned U.S. drones target al-Qaida and Taliban targets in Pakistan's border regions.
Pakistan said today it strongly protested the air strikes, disputing NATO's assertion that its forces have the right of hot pursuit across the Afghan border, the AP reported.
But the U.S. said the helicopter attacks were "self-defense" and allowed under military rules in the region, according to Capt. Ryan Donald, a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.
"The ISAF helicopters did cross into Pakistan territory to engage the insurgents," Donald told the AP. "ISAF maintains the right to self-defense, and that's why they crossed the Pakistan border." The news agency reported three aircraft strikes since Saturday, the most recent occurring today.
NATO's new offensive to take back Kandahar was described as the war-torn country's most important operation.
"This is the most significant military operation ongoing in Afghanistan," said NATO spokesman Brig. Gen. Josef Blotz, according to the Times. " We expect hard fighting."
Taking back Kandahar, the Taliban capital before the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, is considered crucial to President Barack Obama's pledge to shift the country's balance of power since the emergence in recent years of al-Qaida and Taliban fighters.