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QALAT, Afghanistan — The basketball tournament is long over, but March Madness marches on in this part of southern Afghanistan as U.S. troops steel themselves for the Taliban’s spring offensive in a dusty, difficult corner of the country.

With the beginning of the Afghan new year on March 21, leaders say they expect both the temperature and the pace to rise in upcoming months.

Springtime usually “marks the time that it’s warm enough for the enemy infiltration to happen from Pakistan,” said Lt. Col. Frank Sturek, commander of 2nd Battalion, 4th Infantry Regiment, a Fort Polk, La.-based part of the 10th Mountain Division.

The battalion’s aim is to target known areas of infiltration and critical areas, such as district centers and government areas. The province, which lies close to Taliban-era capital Kandahar, is rife with smuggling routes from neighboring Pakistan.

“We’re basically trying to take it to the enemy, but to do it by zone here,” Sturek said.

One of the biggest enemies, he said, is the punishing terrain. Very few modern roads connect the province, which is full of craggy mountains with caves and nooks. The sheer size of the province also poses a challenge, Sturek said.

“This is the equivalent of Connecticut and New York in size,” he said. “It’s a huge area.”

His hope, he said, is to make the area incrementally safer in preparation for the International Security and Assistance Force to take control of the sector by 2007.

“What I’m trying to do is reduce the influence, reduce the number of fighters coming over from Pakistan,” he said. “I don’t have any false hopes of stopping the infiltration. It’s not going to happen.”

Since the battalion officially assumed control in late March, activity has been limited.

“I think they’re just feeling us out right now,” he said, “and we’re feeling them out.”

But he said he feels the work of previous infantry units has set up good conditions in the area. Locals confirmed they’d seen decreased Taliban presence in some parts of the sector.

To chart success, Sturek offered a football analogy.

“We’re moving the ball,” he said, “we just don’t know where on the field we are.”

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