Once relatively peaceful, security in northern Afghanistan has deteriorated as the Taliban, squeezed by NATO operations focusing on militant strongholds in the south, have expanded their reach to other parts of the country.
NATO said a joint force stormed a compound in the Chahar Dara district of Kunduz province before dawn, killing an insurgent and detaining several suspects in an operation targeting a high-level Taliban leader believed to make roadside bombs and suicide vests. The coalition said it had not yet identified the slain militant.
But district chief Abdul Wahid Omarkhel and the Kunduz governor's spokesman, Mabobullah Sayedi, said the operation killed Maulvi Bahadar, who has been the Taliban's acting shadow governor for Kunduz for several months. They said another four suspects had been arrested. The Taliban have set up so-called shadow governors in many provinces, claiming to be the legitimate authority in the area.
Afghan forces also conducted a separate overnight raid in two compounds in the neighboring province of Tahar, killing a Taliban district chief in a gunfight that also left an Afghan policeman and a border guard dead, said Gen. Shah Jahan Noori, provincial chief of police. Noori identified the slain insurgent as Sheikh Ahmadullah, who he said headed the Taliban in the Khwaja Bahawuddin district and was responsible for organizing roadside bombs and suicide attacks.
Also Friday, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in the Afghan capital to speak with the Homeland Security officers working with the Afghan government to secure the country's porous borders from militants, as well as weapons and drug smugglers. She was to spend New Year's Eve with U.S. troops and meet with Afghan and U.S. officials in Kabul before heading to Qatar, the U.S. Embassy said.
Meanwhile, Italian military authorities in Rome said an Italian soldier was shot dead while on guard duty at a base in Gulistan in the western province of Farah. NATO said another coalition service member was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan. It did provide further details.
This year has been by far the deadliest for foreign troops in the nearly 10-year war. The latest two deaths brought the total in 2010 to 702 foreign troops killed, compared to 504 last year, previously the bloodiest of the war.
In an end-of-year review of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, the Obama administration cited advances in its push against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, but acknowledged that while Taliban momentum has been stopped or reversed in some areas, "gains remain fragile and reversible."
Despite gains, violence still pervades much of the south. On Friday, insurgents threw hand grenades into two homes in the Zhari district of Kandahar in the Taliban's provincial heartland, killing a child and wounding six civilians, said Kandahar governor spokesman, Zelmai Ayubi.
Zhari, located just outside Kandahar city and the birthplace of the Taliban, was part of the focus of the U.S. surge of 30,000 troops earlier this year. U.S. forces advanced on the district several months ago as part of a crucial strategy aimed at reducing violence in the nearby city by stemming the flow of fighters and weapons.
In September 2006, a Canadian-led force pushed the Taliban out of Zhari and nearby Panjwai in an operation that cost 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back.
In Wardak province west of Kabul, NATO said Friday that several insurgents and a child had been killed in fighting during a joint operation with Afghan forces targeting a Taliban logistics officer in a compound the previous day.
The joint force came under fire Thursday from the compound and fired back, killing several insurgents, it said in a statement, without specifying how many.