By FISNIK ABRASHI, Associated Press
Villagers trickled back to their damaged farms, descending from the hills with their belongings in bundles or on donkeys Tuesday after a NATO operation in their valley killed some 75 suspected Taliban fighters.
The latest salvo in the alliance’s campaign to win control of southern Afghanistan chalked up a clear military victory. But the outcome of the tougher battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans remained unclear.
The suspected militants were killed Monday when heavily armed British, Danish and Afghan soldiers fought their way up the Sangin Valley in Helmand province â€” Afghanistan’s most volatile, and the source of most of the world’s opium and heroin.
Maj. Dominic Biddick, who led a company of British troops in the operation, told The Associated Press that some of those killed Monday were local men whose deaths could turn their relatives against the NATO troops. Afghan troops were meeting with residents about how to bury the remains.
Biddick said NATO troops also captured several militants and discovered an arms cache during “a full day of fighting” among the valley’s walled compounds and opium poppy fields.
Just one British soldier was wounded, he said, without providing any details of his condition.
“The operation went better than most people had anticipated,” Biddick told an AP reporter traveling with his unit. “We hope that the damage now is relatively minor compared to the benefits the operation will bring in the long term.”
The toll of 75 dead, which Biddick described as an estimate, could not be verified independently.
Violence in Afghanistan is escalating after a winter lull. More than 1,300 people have died in insurgency-related violence this year, including about 600 in April, according to an AP tally based on reports from Afghan, NATO and U.S.-led coalition officials.
Fighting has occurred across a broad swath of Afghanistan. Violence reported Tuesday included an airstrike that killed four suspected insurgents attacking a town in eastern Afghanistan and a roadside bomb that left two Afghan soldiers dead in the west.
About 100 students chanted “Death to America!” and burned an effigy of “Infidel Bush” in the eastern city of Jalalabad to protest the deaths of six people when U.S. and Afghan troops raided a suspected car-bomb factory Sunday.
The coalition said four of the dead were militants, but villagers said they were all civilians.
The offensive in the Sangin Valley is part of Operation Achilles, NATO’s largest-ever assault on the Taliban, which began March 6. The campaign seeks to reclaim Helmand so President Hamid Karzai’s government can expand its reach.
The British-led troops, backed by artillery and helicopters, took on Taliban fighters armed with rockets and mortars. Afghan and British soldiers used explosives to blow holes in the mud walls of house compounds to avoid booby-trapped entrances.
To reduce the risk of civilian casualties, NATO used leaflets and radio broadcasts to warn the valley’s residents to leave before the military sweep.
On Tuesday, villagers began filing back to see what had happened to their homes, livestock and family members.
Dozens of adults and children trickled down from the dusty hills to the north. Some carried bundles, others drove donkeys laden with possessions. They quickly disappeared into houses, ignoring watching British soldiers.
NATO’s goal is to secure southern Afghanistan so Karzai’s Western-backed government can provide basic services such as health care and let in reconstruction aid that so far has flowed mainly to safer regions.
Five years after the ouster of the Taliban, NATO’s top commanders acknowledge their offensive could be the last chance to persuade Afghans that the government rather than the hardline militia can bring peace and some relief from poverty after a quarter-century of war.
NATO troops will stay in the valley until government soldiers have built three patrol bases to guard against militants returning. NATO officers will also bring development funds, and some of that money could be used to compensate for damaged property, Biddick said.
Furthermore, NATO troops are taking no part in Afghan government eradication of opium fields for fear of stoking more resentment among the many families who depend on the illicit crop.
“Afghans are very rational,” Biddick said. “They will make a judgment once they have seen that we have delivered.”