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US looks east for Afghan war endgame

KHOST, Afghanistan--The U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan is shifting its focus from Taliban strongholds in the south to the Pakistani border, where troops will likely fight until 2014.

With NATO forces on deadline to end their combat mission within three years, coalition leaders believe major offensives against Taliban rebels in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand have turned the tide in the war.

The east is now the new priority, as strategists work out how to contain Islamist militant groups such as the Taliban, al-Qaida and the al-Qaida-linked Haqqani network, embedded in the border areas with rear bases in Pakistan.

The United States may be withdrawing 33,000 soldiers by the end of next summer, but it is boosting troops in the eastern province of Khost, where officers talk of taking the fight to the enemy and winning the decade-long war.

“Most nights of the week, U.S. special forces are in action here taking out enemy operatives,” said Aaron Tapalman, the 28-year-old U.S. Army captain in charge at Combat Outpost Sabari.

“We are aggressive, we are getting out there to challenge the insurgents and push ahead to provide security.

“This area has been a safe haven for several years and we are determined to make progress and change things.”

Tapalman's post takes regular mortar fire, and a surveillance balloon scans the ground for rebel attacks and foot patrols thread their way through fields laced with bombs.

“Some areas of Afghanistan are transitioning (to Afghan control) but districts like Sabari are well behind that,” he said, pointing out that only five of the 53 district administration positions are currently filled.

In the absence of government structures and security, the Khost provincial reconstruction team (PRT) encourages warring local tribes to unite against the insurgents who transit through Khost carrying weapons and explosives.

“This is not the right environment for reconstruction projects,” said Sabari PRT leader Captain Steve Baunach.

“The kinetic battle is pushing insurgents out of Afghanistan, and they are moving east to key exit points. Khost has been a traditional embarkation point for insurgents from Pakistan, so the fight here will pick up.”

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US looks east for Afghan war endgame
U.S. Army 1st Lt. Cory Dombrowski, 24, of South Bend, Indiana, takes position after being dropped off by a Blackhawk helicopter in Kunar province, Afghanistan, on Saturday, July ...

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