WASHINGTON—Afghanistan is fast becoming the toughest peacekeeping mission in NATO's 57-year history as the Taliban presses some of its most intensive attacks since the Islamic militia was driven from power in 2001.
More than 100 people, including a U.S. contractor, a Canadian soldier and dozens of insurgents, died in clashes and suicide bombings on Wednesday and Thursday, mostly in the Taliban's birthplace of southern Afghanistan, according to U.S., NATO and Afghan officials.
In one incident, hundreds of insurgents attacked the southern town of Mosa Qala on Wednesday evening, and fighting raged through the night, leaving at least 13 Afghan police and dozens of Taliban dead.
The unrest comes as thousands of British, Canadian and Dutch peacekeepers are deploying into southern Afghanistan, replacing U.S. troops in a major expansion of NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
Until now, ISAF has overseen security in Kabul and reconstruction projects in relatively peaceful central, western and northern regions. But with its move south, NATO, which was created to defend Western Europe from a Soviet invasion, is becoming embroiled in an escalating guerrilla war in the heart of the Muslim world.
"In the Balkans, we never had ground forces that had to deal with insurgent organizations. We had ground forces that had to deal with riots, criminal groups and the occasional war criminal. But NATO has never faced a major insurgency," said Seth Jones of the RAND Corp., a research institute that advises the Pentagon.
The U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Karl Eikenberry, said last week that the Taliban is better trained, armed and organized than in the past and has adopted tactics used in Iraq, including sophisticated improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.
Some of the violence is related to tribal rivalries and a major Afghan government drive to eradicate the poppy crops that make the country the world's largest producer of opium, from which heroin is made.
Eikenberry said that with NATO's expansion, more than 20,000 U.S. troops concentrating on counterinsurgency efforts in eastern Afghanistan and major strides being made in the training and deployment of Afghan security forces, the Taliban will be contained by year's end.
Despite its resurgence since last year, the Taliban isn't strong enough to overthrow President Hamid Karzai's government. But some U.S. officials and independent experts warn that the Taliban's real aim is to whittle away at the already seriously diminished confidence many Afghans have in their leader and his U.S.-led allies because of persistent violence, crime and corruption and the slow pace of reconstruction.
By targeting ISAF's southern deployment, the Taliban also appears intent on weakening public support in NATO nations for the peacekeeping operation. On Wednesday, only hours after a female Canadian soldier was killed, the Canadian parliament approved an extension of Canada's participation in ISAF until 2009 by only four votes.
"There are huge questions over how NATO will perform and whether countries will sustain this," said Bob Templer of the International Crisis Group, a conflict-prevention organization. "The further we get away from 9-11, the more difficult it is to sell."
"The situation is bad," agreed a U.S. official, who asked not to be further identified because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly. "It's going to be a hot summer. It's going to be bloody."
The bloodshed also has heightened tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban's one-time chief patron.
Pakistan's continued cooperation is vital to the Bush administration's pursuit of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who's believed to be hiding on the rugged Afghan-Pakistan border, and the global network of violent jihadi groups that he inspires.
The violence "is a test of NATO and a test of the U.S. ability to coordinate in the war on terrorism between two countries that are at odds with each other," said Amin Tarzi, an analyst with U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
As the violence persisted Thursday, Karzai accused Pakistan's military regime of aiding in the Taliban's resurgence by training and arming the insurgents.
"Intelligence agencies of Pakistan have been providing training to militants and send them back to Afghanistan after equipping them," he told tribal elders in Kunar Province, according to the Afghan Islamic Press agency.
Pakistan denies that it's backing the Taliban, pointing to the intense counterinsurgency operations that tens of thousands of its troops have been conducting in tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.
But U.S. officials say that Islamabad could do more, and some experts contend that Islamabad is quietly aiding the Taliban because it's angry at the ties that Karzai and the Bush administration are cultivating with Pakistan's archrival, India.
"There is a huge anxiety in Pakistan with whatever the Indians are doing," said Templer. "There is a view in the Pakistan military that Afghanistan is really their backyard."
India's involvement in Afghanistan includes the construction of a highway in southern Nimroz Province, bordering Pakistan and Iran, by a state-owned Indian construction organization closely tied to the Indian military.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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