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US ramps up Taliban fight

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 28, 2007


Vice President Dick Cheney came to Afghanistan on an unannounced visit Tuesday to remind Americans of the importance of the first, and often forgotten, front in the war on terror. A Taliban suicide bomber who failed in an attempt to assassinate Mr. Cheney here helped to make a compelling case for him.

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Since last summer, when the Taliban seized entire districts in the southernmost provinces and attempted to encircle Kabul, the United States has refocused its attention on Afghanistan.

Recently, the Bush administration proposed $10.6 billion in aid, announced the overhaul of its diplomatic mission here, and increased the number of American troops to 27,000 – the highest level since the 2001 invasion.

It is, in part, an attempt to save what has been promoted as the administration's great overseas achievement, even as Iraq slips further into chaos. But Tuesday's events are indicative of the Taliban's eagerness to escalate the fight, and analysts question whether America's increased commitment to Afghanistan will be sufficient to make the country's democratic experiment successful.

"For so long, Afghanistan was held up as the success story," says Paul Fishstein, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent analysis organization. "Now it seems that much of what has been touted as building a pluralistic, open democracy is at risk."

Tuesday's attack comes at a time of relative peace around Kabul, which has not seen a suicide attack for months.

Mr. Cheney was staying at Bagram Air Base, about 40 miles north of the capital. When the bomber was unable to get beyond the front gate because of security, he blew himself up, according to coalition officials. At press time, casualty figures were uncertain, but at least 23 were killed. NATO reported that at least one US soldier, an American contractor, and a South Korean solder were among the dead. President Hamid Karzai's office said that some 20 Afghan workers at the base lost their lives.

Cheney said that the attackers were trying "to find ways to question the authority of the central government." The Taliban, who have claimed responsibility for the attack through a spokesman, say that Cheney was the intended target.

It is not yet clear whether this attack heralds an expansion of the Taliban offensive into the relatively stable north. The Taliban are strongest in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where they are widely believed to receive haven and support in neighboring Pakistan.

Their offensive in the region last year created lawless enclaves – with much of the area still controlled by neither the government nor the insurgents. The situation has jolted the West – and the US in particular – into action. "Last year seemed to wake the international community to the fact that this war was not a complete success," says a Western diplomat, who would discuss the issue only on condition of anonymity. "In fact, it was a potential failure."