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U.S. trains sights on Taliban, Al Qaeda stronghold

It plans to send more troops to Afghanistan and ramp up attacks in Pakistan.

By Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Gordon LuboldStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / September 11, 2008

Rich Clabaugh–STAFF

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NEW DELHI and WASHINGTON

Two announcements this week suggest that the US is adopting a more aggressive strategy to fight the growing insurgency that spans the Afghan-Pakistani border.

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On the heels of allegations last week that US ground forces conducted their first-ever operation in Pakistan, officials there said the US killed four foreign militants in Pakistan in a missile strike Monday. And President Bush announced Tuesday that US forces in Iraq would be reduced by 8,000 troops by February – and 4,500 additional troops sent to Afghanistan.

The events are an acknowledgment both of the severity of the situation in Afghanistan and the perceived inadequacy of US allies.

The strikes in Pakistan are a tacit admission that Pakistan's military has not been up to the task of rooting out terrorist leaders in its inhospitable border area. And Mr. Bush's "quiet surge" comes after repeated failed attempts to persuade NATO partners to shoulder more of the fighting load.

Yet it is an acknowledgment that the US, too, has comparatively neglected Afghanistan while focusing on Iraq. While the situation in Iraq has somewhat stabilized, security in Afghanistan has deteriorated this year to the point that militants are moving beyond suicide bombs to daring and effective attacks against coalition forces and the heart of the Afghan state:

•In August, Taliban fighters ambushed French special forces in Kabul Province – just 30 miles from the capital – killing 10 and wounding 21. The attack was unprecedented: Previously, the Taliban had avoided engaging coalition forces directly.

•Also last month, the Taliban laid siege to Camp Salerno, one of the largest US bases in Afghanistan, using relatively sophisticated tactics such as waves of suicide bombers intended to rip holes in the base's defensive perimeter.

•In June, Taliban militants blew open the gates to a prison in the southern city of Kandahar with a truck bomb, freeing as many as 400 Taliban inmates.

•In April, Taliban gunmen trying to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened fire at an Independence Day celebration, killing three.

•In January, Taliban suicide bombers broke into the Serena Hotel – Kabul's only five-star hotel and its most heavily guarded – killing six.

"It is generally accepted now across all [US] government agencies that the situation in Afghanistan has significantly worsened and has become quite dire," says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a security consultancy.

The reasons are many, from faltering confidence in the Afghan government to the lack of a clear strategy. But perhaps the most cited reason, Mr. Jones says, "is every major [insurgent] group's ability to use Pakistan as a command and control hub."

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