GHAZNI, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Polish troops took command of security in the Afghan province of Ghazni on Thursday, a volatile area just two hour’s drive southwest of Kabul where Taliban militants are gaining influence.
About 1,600 Polish troops have now taken control of Ghazni, freeing up U.S. forces to take on Taliban militants elsewhere in the eastern sector which includes the porous Pakistani border from where insurgents infiltrate into Afghanistan.
“Poland is taking over responsibility for security and development as well as future prosperity of Ghazni province. We are ready to do it and we are dedicated to do it well for the benefit of out hosts,” Polish Defence Minister Bogdan Klich told troops at the change of command ceremony.
The United States has made repeated appeals for its NATO allies to send more troops to Afghanistan and allow those there to engage in combat missions without restrictions that some European nations place on their soldiers.
Poland and France have made the most significant response, with Polish troops agreeing to take responsibility for Ghazni and Paris sending 700 extra French troops to a valley in the east which is a stronghold of Taliban allies. Both France and Poland place no restrictions on their troops in the east.
Some 1,200 troops moved into Ghazni four months ago under U.S. command and have repeatedly come under fire since then.
In the last six months of their tour, which began in another eastern province, Polish troops have been in combat 600 times and have been hit by more than 100 improvised explosive devices. Six Polish soldiers have been killed and 20 wounded, their outgoing commander said.
The Polish troops have brought in a number of helicopter gunships as well as their own transport aircraft, but they have a tough task ahead of them.
Ghazni, the former capital of the 11th century Ghaznavid Empire which stretched from the Caspian Sea to India, is a strategic city astride the main road from the capital, Kabul, to the southern city of Kandahar, and also routes towards Pakistan.
Two years ago, Ghazni was seen as largely secure but since 2006 Taliban militants have moved into the region from the south and east, attacking traffic on the highway, burning schools and kidnapping foreign civilians.
Afghans from Ghazni say it is no longer safe for them to visit villages even close to the provincial capital and local journalists say Taliban fighters can now be seen on the streets of the city after dark.
In a demonstration of their growing influence, the Taliban ordered mobile phone operators to shut their networks during the day in Ghazni last week, extending a night-time ban the insurgents already impose in most of the south and east.
The growth of mobile phone usage is one few business success stories in Afghanistan since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. There is now no mobile phone coverage in Ghazni, even inside the Polish base.