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NATO Troops Engage with Taliban Militants in Afghanistan

August 7, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT

NICK PATON WALSH, ITV News Correspondent: Tschora is not a place you fly alone to. In the heart of the rugged Uruzgan region, the ground rushes up on you here. The valley’s green more fraught with Taliban than the hostile mountains.

About 70 Dutch troops hold this area, their battle for Tschora a largely unnoticed part of NATO’s occupation. We flew in with Lieutenant Dennis; tasked with training the Afghan national army, he quickly catches up on the past week.

LIEUTENANT: It says that Kala Kala is a little bit — it’s not quiet over there, so there’s a lot of shooting. And yesterday, one guy got killed in action there.

A nearby explosion

NICK PATON WALSH: It's not long until Kala Kala needs rescuing again. The Dutch call it K-2, a frontline outpost that's seen the worst fighting in the past three months here. The Afghan army have been rushed in as reinforcements. Half the police normally stationed here have taken the morning off to go and get paid. It's not a place you can leave undermanned for long.

A blast. It's three kilometers away, but it still rattles the outpost. The smoke is from where the Taliban have launched a rocket. And this is where it landed, just a hundred meters from its target, the Dutch army convoy.

Dennis calls in the Taliban's coordinates, and two Apache gunship helicopters are dispatched. As they circle, the outpost's commander hears from the Taliban over the radio. The Taliban tell the police they're the sons of George Bush. Still, they run from what they call "the insects."

The Apaches return to base, not finding a target. They're being shot at from the valley below and fear this could be the start of a full-scale attack. The Afghan response is a little chaotic.

LIEUTENANT: Does he something? Does he something?

Doubling NATO troop presence

NICK PATON WALSH: Dennis tries to keep order. The threat's still there, even if it is hidden. How the Afghan army reacts here is key to the coalition's exit strategy. They're 35,000 strong today, but NATO wants that to double by the end of next year. Once they're ready to handle security, NATO argues, then it can start to leave.

Only seven weeks ago, the Taliban attacked, taking all but four square kilometers of this valley. The Dutch say they tried to negotiate until the last moment but eventually had to unleash massive air strikes. This intense bombing killed up to 150 Taliban, they say, and also 53 civilians.

Yet today, a high-level delegation flew in to court the favor of local elders, about 40 minutes on the ground in this volatile valley.

They almost took the whole valley seven weeks now. You were down to four square kilometers. Shouldn't there be more troops here to make sure that doesn't happen again?

BRIG. GEN. MARQUIS HAINSE, Deputy Southern Commander-ISAF: At any given time it's a question of priority. We will decide when we feel like the time is right. We might bring more troops; we might serve more troops. Again, question of priority and what we want to do.

NICK PATON WALSH: Holland has to decide next month if its troops in Afghanistan, nine of whom have died so far, will stay on.