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AIR BASE, Afghanistan — U.S. commanders in Afghanistan are shifting forces and resources away from the hunt for Osama bin Laden to help support Afghanistan’s upcoming national elections.

“We’re going from the specific objective of searching out and killing the enemy to going out and protecting the election process,” said Maj. Robert Ault, a senior operations planner for Combined Joint Task Force 76, the main warfighting headquarters in Afghanistan.

“This is a huge shift for us,” he said.

Called “Operation Lightning Resolve,” the new focus of effort is designed to shore up the United Nation’s push to register voters for the country’s first post-Taliban elections since U.S. forces toppled the regime in late 2001.

The deteriorating security situation has repeatedly delayed those polls. In fact, only 6 million of an estimated 10 million eligible voters have been able to register so far.

Presidential elections were initially scheduled for June, then September. They are now set for Oct. 9 and will be followed by parliamentary elections in the spring.

In public statements, Taliban leaders have vowed to prevent those elections. Death threats against anyone participating in the elections have been circulating widely among villages. Already, dozens of Afghans have been killed or wounded in attacks against voting registration and security efforts in recent weeks.

Among the latest attacks, militants on Tuesday gunned down a police chief in a village near Kandahar, also torching a government building there, according to reports.

The Army hospital at Bagram air base this week was rehearsing mass casualty treatment scenarios amid concerns of a repeat of an attack that left more than a dozen Afghan women dead or wounded in Jalalabad on June 26. The women were assisting in voter registration efforts in the area when an explosive device ripped their minibus apart.

One young girl missing the lower part of a leg is still recovering at the hospital.

“We know the threat is going to increase,” as the elections near, said Ault. Ault underscored, however, that the new U.S.-led campaign is not a shift to a more defensive stance.

“In fact, it’s just the opposite,” said Ault. “We’re still focused on going out and killing bad guys.”

But now, rather than conduct specific operations to hunt for militants, U.S. troops will largely be tasked with providing overall security in troubled areas. Part of that effort, said Ault, will be shoring up the fledging Afghan National Army and local police forces.

New tactics

Lightning Resolve comes on the heels of Operation Mountain Storm, the U.S. coalition’s spring offensive. The focal point of Mountain Storm was inserting the 2,000-strong 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit into Tarin Kot, a remote Taliban stronghold north of Kandahar.

Like poking a stick into the hornet’s nest, the operation resulted in several pitched battles with scores of Taliban killed.

“They stood and fought, but sustained losses probably in the hundreds,” said Ault. “They learned every time they engage us, they lose.”

As a result, he said, “we’re seeing the enemy transition into smaller formations,” and pick its fights more carefully.

In response, commanders are trying to lure out guerrilla fighters by sending out smaller forces into the badlands.

“Otherwise the enemy just won’t engage us,” said Lt. Col. Frank Tate, chief operations officer for the Army and Marine Corps aviation task force in Afghanistan.

“We want them to try and bite us, so then we can chop their heads off,” said Tate.

To do that, commanders have been dispersing their units across wider areas.

U.S. forces have been moving from battalion-sized units operating from local fire bases and concentrating on a specific area or village, said Ault. Now, battalion commanders are responsible for entire regions in what has been dubbed, “area ownership operations,” he said.

Those commanders have also been given some $40 million dollars to finance local projects.

“They have more leverage now than just their firepower. They have cash,” said Ault.

As U.S. forces transition into Lightning Resolve, commanders hope to be able to use more carrot than stick.

“We’re being very selective in how we’re doing operations now. We’re trying to move among the people, not through them,” said Ault.

The Marine mission in Tarin Kot, for example, was intentionally “very intrusive. We were trying to make our presence known,” in an area that largely never sees U.S. forces.

Now, the Marines are being replaced with civil affairs teams and other units that are giving the local population a “better alternative than the Taliban.”

The local governor, installed by Afghanistan’s interim government in Kabul, had been largely under siege in his own compound there.

“He was governor in name only,” said Ault. “Now, he’s out meeting with the village elders and articulating his priorities.”

Help on the way

Lightning Resolve also comes as the NATO-led peacekeeping force is preparing to expand its security mission in Iraq. The 6,500-strong International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, has been slowly expanding from Kabul to provinces in the north.

On July 1, it took over provincial reconstruction efforts and five additional provinces.

Gradually, ISAF will assume responsibility for larger swaths of the Afghanistan map, said Ault, eventually “expanding counter-clockwise to the south.”

Meanwhile, the alliance announced Friday it was preparing to deploy two rapid reaction units — about 2,000 troops — into Afghanistan in preparation for the elections, The Washington Post reported.

“For the election, we’ll bring in extra forces to have a quick-reaction force ... so when things go wrong, you can move forces quickly in-theater,” NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was quoted as saying.

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