June 30, 2008, Kabul, Afghanistan – Militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq for the second straight month, a grim milestone capping a run of headline-grabbing insurgent attacks that analysts say underscore the Taliban’s growing strength.
The fundamentalist militia in June staged a sophisticated jailbreak that freed 886 prisoners, then briefly infiltrated a strategic valley outside Kandahar. Last week, a Pentagon report forecast the Taliban would maintain or increase its pace of attacks, which are already up 40 percent this year from 2007 where U.S. troops operate along the Pakistan border.
Some observers say the insurgency has gained dangerous momentum. And while June also saw the international community meet in Paris to pledge $21 billion in aid, an Afghanistan expert at New York University warns that there is still no strategy to turn that commitment into success.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted that more international troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May, the first time that had happened. While that trend — now two months old — is in part due to falling violence in Iraq, it also reflects rising violence in Afghanistan.
At least 45 international troops — including at least 27 U.S. forces and 13 British — died in Afghanistan in June, the deadliest month since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, according to an Associated Press count.
In Iraq, at least 31 international soldiers died in June: 29 U.S. troops and one each from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. There are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 4,000 British forces in additional to small contingents from several other nations.
The 40-nation international coalition is much broader in Afghanistan, where only about half of the 65,000 international troops are American.
That record number of international troops means that more soldiers are exposed to danger than ever before. But Taliban attacks are becoming increasingly complex, and in June, increasingly deadly.
A gun and bomb attack last week in Ghazni province blasted a U.S. Humvee into smoldering ruins, killing three U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. It was the fourth attack of the month against troops that killed four people. No single attack had killed more than three international troops since August 2007.
“I think possibly we’ve reached a turning point,” said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center. “Insurgents now are more active, more organized, and the political environment, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, favors insurgent activities.”
U.S. commanders have blamed Pakistani efforts to negotiate peace deals for the spike in cross-border attacks, though an initial deal with militants has begun to fray and security forces recently launched a limited crackdown in the semiautonomous tribal belt where the Taliban and al-Qaida operate with increasing freedom.
For a moment in mid-June, Afghanistan’s future shimmered brightly. World leaders gathered in Paris to pledge more than $21 billion in aid, and Afghan officials unveiled a development strategy that envisions peace by 2020.
But the very next day, the massive and flawlessly executed assault on the prison in Kandahar — the Taliban’s spiritual home — drew grudging respect even from Western officials.
U.S. Ambassador William Wood said violence is up because Taliban fighters are increasingly using terrorist tactics that cause higher tolls, but that there’s no indication fighters can hold territory. He said June had “some very good news and a couple cases of bad news.”
“The very good news was Paris. There were more nations represented, contributing more than ever before,” Wood told the AP.
The scramble after the jailbreak to push the Taliban back from the nearby Arghandab valley was the other big plus, Wood said. The Afghan army sent more than 1,000 troops to Kandahar in two days.
“Although Arghandab got major press for being a Taliban attack, the real news in Arghandab was that the Afghans themselves led the counterattack, deployed very rapidly and chased the Taliban away,” Wood said.
The worst news, Wood said, was the prison break, and the possible involvement of al-Qaida.
“The Taliban is not known for that level of complex operation, and others who have bases in the tribal areas are,” he said.
Alani agreed: “The old Taliban could not do such an operation, so we are talking about a new Taliban, possibly al-Qaida giving them the experience to carry out this operation.”
Days after the prison attack, an angry President Hamid Karzai threatened to send Afghan troops after Taliban leaders in Pakistan, marking a new low in Afghan-Pakistan relations.
Contributing to the increased death toll is an increase in sophistication of attacks. U.S. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top commander of U.S. forces here, said this month that militant attacks are becoming more complex — such as gunfire from multiple angles plus a roadside bomb. Insurgents are using more explosives, he said.
Mark Laity, the top NATO spokesman in Afghanistan, said troops are taking the fight to insurgents in remote areas and putting themselves in harm’s way. One or two events can disproportionally affect the monthly death toll, he said.
“Sometimes it is just circumstance,” Laity said. “For instance you can hit an IED and walk away or not, and what has happened this month is that there’s been one or two instances that there’s been multiple deaths.”
The AP count found that some 580 people died in insurgent violence in June, including around 440 militants, 34 civilians and 44 Afghan security forces. More than 2,100 people have died in violence this year, according to the AP count, which is based on figures from Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at NYU, said the Paris conference shows a strong international commitment to Afghanistan, but he said there is still no strategy for longterm success.
“Let’s focus on the essentials: creating a secure environment for Afghanistan and Pakistan to address their problems and for the international community to eliminate al-Qaida’s safe haven,” Rubin said. “We haven’t been getting there, and we are not getting closer, pledges or no pledges.”