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In Afghanistan, Fighting Escalates as Election Nears

Fierce fighting continues in Afghanistan in the final week leading up to the presidential election. Jeffrey Brown speaks with NPR's Renee Montagne.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    U.S. Marines and Taliban militants engaged in fierce fighting today in southern Afghanistan. The battle over a key town continued as the country's presidential campaign entered its final week.

    Jeffrey Brown has our lead story report.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The focus of the fight for a second day was a major Taliban stronghold in Helmand province. The offensive began Wednesday at dawn after 400 U.S. Marines and a hundred Afghan troops stormed the town of Dahaneh in the face of heavy resistance.

    Today, the coalition force resumed its bid to drive out insurgents who've kept the area in their grip.

    ABDUL RAZAK, Afghan villager (through translator): There is no peace and security in this country, and we are concerned. Now, hopefully, security and prosperity will come to this village. We all look forward to that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The coalition force also operated under new restrictions on air strikes to avoid civilian casualties. This was the latest in a series of recent operations since U.S. forces began a major buildup in Afghanistan. Casualties have also been rising, with another American and three British soldiers killed today.

    As more U.S. troops pour in, the Wall Street Journal reported this week that their top commander, Army General Stanley McChrystal, was warning that the Taliban have gained the upper hand. The general's aides disputed that account, and today in Washington Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it's a mixed picture.

    ROBERT GATES, secretary of defense: In some parts of Afghanistan, the Taliban have clearly established a presence. The operations underway now and those being considered for the coming months are designed to roll back the Taliban and establish a lasting security and government presence, a presence that can give the Afghan people confidence that they will be protected from intimidation and retribution.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Gates said an upcoming assessment from McChrystal will not contain specific recommendations for additional troops. For now, U.S. operations are aimed at securing as much of Afghanistan as possible ahead of the presidential vote a week from today.

    At today's Pentagon briefing, the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General James Cartwright, said there's been some success.