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Gen. James Jones, NATO's supreme allied commander, says Canadian forces did 'an absolutely superb job' in the latest offensive. ((CBC))

The U.S. general who heads all NATO military forces says a two-week campaign that cost five Canadian lives in southern Afghanistan may have wiped out half of the "hard-core" Taliban fighters in the country.

The Canadian-led push, Operation Medusa, ended on Sept. 15 when Taliban forces stopped fighting and slipped away, Gen. James L. Jones said on Wednesday.

The Taliban "suffered a tactical defeat in the area where they chose to stand and fight" and got "a very powerful message … that they have no chance of winning militarily," he told reporters at the Pentagon.

NATO estimates that "somewhere in the neighbourhood of around 1,000" Taliban fighters were killed, and the number could be higher, he said."If you said 1,500 it wouldn't surprise me."

Half of Taliban force may be dead

He saidhe thoughtthere were3,000 to 4,000 regular Taliban fighters before Operation Medusa. In response to a question, he agreed that he was saying that one-third to one-half of them may have been killed.

Most of thecombat units in Canada's Afghanistan contingent took part in the operation. Four Canadians were killed in the fighting and one died when U.S. jets mistakenly strafed Canadian troops.

On Monday, four more Canadiansdied in an attack by a suicide bomber on a bicycle. They were on patrol in the Panjwaii district of Kandahar province, where the Taliban had ostensibly been defeated the previous week. The bombing broughtCanada'sdeath toll in Afghanistan since 2002to 36 soldiers and one diplomat.

Canada currently has more than 2,000 soldiers in Afghanistan.

Jonessaid itis unclear how quickly the Taliban dead will be replaced with fresh fighters. He stressed that he was not counting casual, short-term recruits. "They bring along a lot of other weekend warriors if they can pay for them. [They]say, 'Do you want to make 200 euros or $200?' Actually, they pay dollars."

Nor are Taliban forces the only problem, he added.

"There's also the al-Qaeda remnant, which is considerably less. Then there's the [opium]cartels with their own armies for security of their convoys, and this is a problem. Then you have the corruption, the criminal elements, the tribal fighting that goes on. So it's a lot of disparate groups."

High praise for Canada

He praised the countries that contributed troops to Operation Medusa.

"I think the governments have been very strong, particularly Canada. Canadian leadership has been very, very strong in this. Canadian forces did an absolutely superb job, augmented by their British colleagues, a Dutch company that came in and two companies from the U.S."

But hesaid he was notclaiming total victory over the Taliban. "Wehave disturbed the hornets' nest and the hornets are swarming.… It remains to be seen how much more capacity they have for this kind of fight."