By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 19, 2006
ASADABAD, Afghanistan, May 18 -- Afghanistan has been rocked over the past two days by some of the deadliest violence since the Taliban was driven from power in late 2001. As many as 105 people were reported killed in four provinces as insurgents torched a district government compound, set off suicide bombs and clashed fiercely with Afghan and foreign troops.
Between 80 and 90 Taliban fighters were killed in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, according to Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials. Two sites in Kandahar were struck by U.S. warplanes, including a long-range B-1 bomber, which U.S. military officials said destroyed a compound that Taliban guerrillas were using to stage an attack.
Among the dead were an American police trainer killed by a car bomb in Herat province, a female Canadian army captain and at least 12 Afghan national policemen, officials said.
Afghanistan experienced several years of relative calm after a pro-Western government took over in Kabul in 2001. But in recent months, the pace and scope of insurgent attacks have been increasing steadily, and now include suicide bombings, a tactic long foreign to Afghanistan. The violence has surged as NATO forces prepare to assume the lead military role in Afghanistan from U.S. troops this summer, a transition that some observers believe the Taliban and other insurgent groups are seeking to test.
President Hamid Karzai, visiting the capital of eastern Konar province under heavy security, angrily denounced the new violence as the work of religious extremists and intelligence services in neighboring Pakistan, saying they had sent young men across the border to stage attacks in the name of holy war.
"In Pakistan they train people to go to Afghanistan, conduct jihad, burn schools and clinics," he told a gathering of provincial elders in a long, emotional speech. "What kind of Islam is this?"
Karzai did not blame Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, calling him a "dear brother" and saying that "terrorism is a fire that will extend to your country, too." But he directly taunted Mohammad Omar, the fugitive Afghan Taliban leader, challenging him to "show yourself" and "come fight with me" instead of hiding.
The president expressed particular anguish over the death of the Canadian soldier, Capt. Nichola Goddard, who died Wednesday in a battle with Taliban attackers in Kandahar. "Our land is being protected by a lady from Canada, when we should be protecting her as a guest," he said.
The police trainer killed by a suicide blast in Herat was serving on a contract from the U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul did not identify him, but said that several other Americans and Afghans were wounded by the bomb and that U.S. forces fearing another attack later shot dead the Afghan driver of a truck who failed to stop at a checkpoint and drove directly at the Americans.
The escalating violence has led to a deepening rift between Karzai and Musharraf, who are both important U.S. allies in the region. The Afghan government has long asserted that Islamic fighters are being supported and sheltered by groups within Pakistan. In February, Karzai presented Musharraf with a list of alleged armed extremists living in Pakistan.
The Pakistani leader bristled at the accusations and dismissed them as outdated or fabricated. He has asserted repeatedly that he is doing his best to combat terrorism within Pakistan, and he has sent large numbers of soldiers into the desolate tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where Taliban and al-Qaeda members are widely believed to have taken refuge.
"They talk about people crossing from Pakistan, but we have 78,000 troops and 800 check posts," said Aftab Khan Sherpao, Pakistan's interior minister, in a recent interview. "The militants used to feel safer in the tribal areas because of the culture and the religious bent of mind there, but now we are really exerting pressure and tightening the loop. We get flak from the local people but we have to do it."
U.S. military officials, who work closely with both the Afghan and Pakistani armed forces, say they believe Musharraf shares their concerns about regional terrorism and does not seek to destabilize Afghanistan. But it is not clear, they say, to what extent he can control powerful groups in his country that still support the Taliban or harbor a lingering ambition to dominate Afghanistan.
For those people, Karzai had harsh words Thursday, vowing that Afghanistan "will never become a colony of any country," and excoriating groups that use religion as an excuse to attack their neighbors.
Konar, which stretches alongside the Pakistani tribal region, has come under persistent attacks, including a rocket assault that killed seven children at a school in Asadabad in April. Since March, Afghan and U.S. forces have staged a massive sweep of troubled districts in Operation Mountain Lion.
Karzai, who rarely travels to remote provinces because of security concerns, arrived here from Kabul on one of a formation of U.S. military helicopters.
The president's vehement remarks about Pakistan were repeatedly applauded by provincial leaders, and in welcoming poems and songs young Afghans exhorted him to be tough on "our neighbor enemies."
Questions Karzai received here underlined why it has been difficult to uproot the revived Islamic insurgency even with thousands of foreign troops aiding the new Afghan army and police.
Several local leaders asked the president to help win the freedom of Konar tribal and religious figures held in U.S. military prisons as suspected insurgents. Others pleaded with him to build more Islamic schools in their province, a higher priority for many families than roads or clinics.
In a brief interview after his speech, Karzai said he had not given up on Musharraf and recognized his strategic importance to the U.S.-led anti-terrorist effort. But the Afghan president said he had come under a lot of domestic pressure to get tough with Pakistan.
"People see that nothing has changed and they are very angry," he said. "They want me to stop talking nicely and do something."