KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — The commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan warned critics this week not to assume that recent victories here by the Taliban pose a serious threat to long-term international military goals.

“Don’t confuse tactical success with strategic success,” British Lt. Gen. David Richards told members of the media on Monday.

“What we’ve been seeing here in the south in no way smacks of any strategic gains being made by enemy forces. From a military perspective, we’re certainly on track.”

The comments echoed remarks made by the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, at Bagram Air Base earlier in the week.

He told U.S. troops that Taliban fighters might be able to create tactical problems for the coalition, but they have no real chance of returning to power in Afghanistan.

Coalition and NATO forces have seen an increase in firefights — and ambushes — in the south since the launch of Operation Mountain Thrust in mid-May.

More than 600 enemy fighters have been killed since that time, according to coalition statistics. Defense Department records show 23 U.S. troops were killed in combat in Afghanistan during the operation.

On Tuesday, the first full day after the U.S. handed over control of the southern region to NATO, three British soldiers were killed and a fourth seriously injured in northern Helmand province, the site of the most military activity in recent weeks.

Two soldiers from the Household Cavalry, and one from 7 Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery, were killed in an operation against insurgent forces, The Guardian newspaper quoted the Ministry of Defence as saying.

The ministry said the soldiers were attacked by rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns while patrolling in the Musa Qala district of Helmand province.

Richards said coalition and NATO officials expected heavier fighting with the start of Operation Mountain Thrust, in part because enemy militants had operated there for months without sustained opposition, and in part because of the impending handover.

Still, he said he expects little opportunity for opposition forces to take advantage of the change in leadership, in large part because most units already operating in the area will remain in the area.

“This is certainly a winnable fight,” he said.

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