ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN, AND JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN — As the US-led coalition faces resupply snags and stiff local resistance in Iraq, America's other war also seems to be heating up.
Attacks against US troops in southern Afghanistan, the former stronghold of the deposed Taliban regime, have spiked in recent weeks, culminating Saturday with the ambush of a US Special Forces unit in Helmand Province that left two US soldiers dead and a third injured. Meanwhile, fear of terrorist attacks was heightened in Pakistan, where officials announced fresh intelligence reports.
The two US servicemen - one airman and one Special Forces soldier - were the first American casualties in the ongoing Afghan conflict since last December. The US military has not yet identified the servicemen by name. Their four-vehicle convoy was on reconnaissance patrol near Gereshk, about 80 miles west of Kandahar, when four assailants on two motorcycles opened fire and then escaped, according to Dad Mohammed Khan, the Helmand intelligence chief.
The incident in Helmand came two days after gunmen staged a similar attack along an isolated road in south central Uruzgan province, killing Ricardo Munguia, a Swiss-El Salvadorian water engineer with the International Committee of the Red Cross. After executing Mr. Munguia with a shot to the head, his attackers warned Red Cross workers traveling with him not to assist foreigners. He was the first foreign aid worker killed in Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
US and Afghan officials say it is unclear whether the recent violence was born out of anger over the US-led war in Iraq - a hope that the US military would be less able to respond to continued hostility in Afghanistan while a fresh war raged in the Gulf. US military officials, however, are downplaying the recent attacks, saying levels of resistance remain roughly normal.
"We have had ambushes before and will probably have them again," Col. Roger King, the US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said in an e-mailed response. "I would be reluctant to characterize this as a surge."
Still, the government of President Hamid Karzai is taking the threats seriously, say officials in Kabul, and will shortly make public information revealed by enemy fighters captured in recent weeks.
"We are investigating where are they coming from, how they are financed, and what their motivations are," says Omar Samad, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman. "We are going directly to the source."
Afghan forces Sunday were engaged in fierce fighting with Taliban forces reportedly connected to Munguia's death in the nearby town of Khakrez, according to US and Afghan officials. Coalition warplanes, including Norwegian F-16s, dropped laser-guided bombs on their enemies Saturday after US Apache helicopters sent in as air support came under ground fire.
The latest fighting follows a spate of recent attacks in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Paktika, and Nangahar. Both Afghan and coalition soldiers came under attack, resulting in the deaths of about half a dozen Afghan soldiers, authorities say. Those attacked helped prompt the March 20 launch of a massive operation code named Valiant Strike in Kandahar, the largest US-led mission in Afghanistan since Operation Anaconda a year earlier.
The southeastern town of Jalalabad, meanwhile, has been rocked by a string of bomb attacks and the mysterious delivery of "night letters," pro-Taliban pamphlets distributed under the cover of darkness that urge locals to rise up against the US-backed Afghan government and to kill American soldiers.
Senior Taliban commander Mulla Dadullah, interviewed by telephone last week by the BBC's Pashtu language service, said Taliban forces were regrouping under Mullah Mohammed Omar to drive "Jews and Christians, all foreign crusaders" from Afghanistan. Attacks would increase in the near future, Mr. Dadullah claimed.
Concerns grew in neighboring Pakistan as well, with officials saying they were receiving fresh intelligence that terrorist groups are planning attacks.
The US Embassy in Islamabad, currently on high security alert, has warned American citizens and other westerners in Pakistan of a new threat "from terrorists posing as street vendors or beggars on busy streets." The statement advised foreigners to avoid congested areas.
Meanwhile, other intelligence indicates that Iraqi terror cells could be targeting American diplomats in Islamabad, prompting local police forces to ban cars with diplomatic plates from Iraq from driving near the sprawling US Embassy compound.
Observers say the American government needs to recognize that a confluence of issues could lead to further violence and possibly destabilize both Pakistan and Afghanistan in the coming weeks or months. Not least is the issue that people here generally oppose the invasion of Iraq and believe the US is targeting fellow Muslims.
Pakistani officials also widely fear that the US will again desert the region once Al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden are captured or if the campaign in Iraq drags on -- as the US did following the Afghan war in the 1980s to oust Soviet invaders.
Afghan officials, meanwhile, worry that the slow pace of reconstruction in their shattered country is stirring resentment among the poor.
"In this context," says analyst Khalid Mehmood of Pakistan's Institute of Regional Studies, "the Taliban and the people who share their world view are more likely to increase their resistance, and this is exactly what is happening."