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Between democracy and a hard place

An Afghan Army soldier takes cover as his patrol comes under enemy fire during an operation to clear the Taleban from their stronghold in the eastern province of Nangarhar ahead of Saturday

An Afghan Army soldier takes cover as his patrol comes under enemy fire during an operation to clear the Taleban from their stronghold in the eastern province of Nangarhar ahead of Saturday

Afghan troops go hunting the Taleban as voters prepare for Saturday's election and a future minus the protection of international forces

In a small village in a poppy-covered valley in eastern Afghanistan, a group of soldiers rest and eat after shelling the Taleban for several hours - until a burst of gunfire cuts lunch short.

The men of the Afghan army's fourth infantry brigade have been tasked with clearing the Taleban from the Khogyani and Sherzad districts of the restive province of Nangarhar, ahead of Saturday's presidential election first round.

Whoever wins the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai will inherit a fragile security situation with local soldiers fighting a still-resilient Taleban insurgency, soon without the support of Nato combat forces, which are preparing to leave Afghanistan.

The fourth infantry brigade's "Operation Eagle 30" began before sunrise, with dozens of military vehicles roaring out of the base into the countryside.

The troops move quickly and soon reach a valley of emerald green - poppy fields, the opium goldmine that finances the Taleban insurgency to the tune of millions of dollars a year.

Briefing his men the day before the offensive in a fortified camp half an hour from the provincial capital Jalalabad, General Dadan Lawang reminded his "lions" of their historic duty.

"As you all know, we are at a critical juncture in Afghanistan at the moment - the presidential and provincial council elections," he cried.

"We must fight our enemies and eliminate the insurgents from this district," he said, gesturing to the rugged mountains where the Taleban hide, earning a noisy "Allahu akbar! [God is greater!]" from his men.

Since they were thrown out of power in 2001, the Taleban have led a bloody insurgency which 12 and a half years of Western military intervention have not succeeded in quelling.

The militants still hold sway in certain parts of the country and they have vowed to disrupt the election, prompting fears of low turnout and a discredited poll.

Once in the poppy-lined valley, things start to get serious for the Afghan troops. Fearing ambush and roadside bombs, the convoy edges its way forward.

"These roads are not finished, the insurgents have laid mines everywhere," says Colonel Shirin Agha.

Scarcely are the words out of his mouth when a huge explosion echoes from further down the road - a Taleban roadside bomb, but one which fails to cause any casualties.

Evening falls, and darkness brings the first skirmish with the militants. As the soldiers reached the top of a hill, shots ring out, seemingly from nowhere.

The soldiers unload mortars and a cannon, and begin firing on the snowy hillsides around the valley.

After a biting cold night for the soldiers on the hillside, the offensive begins again in the morning - artillery and American A-10 attack aircraft strafe the valley.

After three hours, Colonel Zubair Ahmad, a tetchy, energetic commander shouts orders into a walkie-talkie to direct operations, calling a halt to the barrage.

The convoy moves off and stops in a little village where the soldiers throw themselves on a well to drink and line up at a huge cooking pot for a plate of rice and a lump of meat - their first hot meal since leaving base.

A few minutes later their plates are flying and the men rushing to their weapons - the Taleban are attacking despite the army's morning-long bombardment.

But if the rebels have the advantage of surprise, the Afghan troops are better equipped and their response is a brutal torrent of fire from rifles, heavy machine guns, and rocket-launchers, while the American A-10s once again roar overhead to strafe the mountain.

"Our convoy faced the enemy ambush and our army forces and police bravely gave them a jaw-breaking answer - the enemy have fled from the area," says Sergeant Ahmad Qais, reloading his rifle.

Lawang too declares Operation Eagle 30 a success and speaks bullishly of the Afghan army's ability to tackle the threat posed by the Taleban - even without American military assistance on land and from the air.

The ability of the new president to lead Afghanistan to a more stable, prosperous future will depend greatly on the army's strength. It remains to be seen whether or not the general's confidence is well-founded.


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