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Afghanistan attacks underscore insurgents' growing reach

New NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussmen called for more European troops as violence in once-calm west and north complicate preparations for Aug. 20 elections.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 3, 2009

A US soldier unloads rounds from an MRAP vehicle after an IED attack on 2nd platoon Apache Company in Afghanistan's Wardak province Monday. Thousands of US troops are deploying in southern Afghanistan as part of an effort to prevent the Taliban from disrupting the country's Aug. 20 presidential election.

Dima Gavrysh/AP

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New Delhi

Two attacks Monday in western and northern Afghanistan underscored the growing reach of the country's insurgency, which now stretches far beyond its early bases along the border with Pakistan.

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That expansion – as well as more effective use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – shows a growing sophistication on the part of the insurgency, and has raised the stakes ahead of the upcoming presidential election.

"Everything has gotten much more sophisticated. These are very well trained guerrillas now. These are not rag-tag village peasants any more," says Ahmed Rashid, author of "Taliban."

A remote-controlled bomb Monday killed two policeman and eight civilians in western Afghanistan, a once relatively calm section of the country. In another quieter area, the north, insurgents ambushed Korean road engineers, killing one of their Afghan drivers.

As such areas become contested, the security situation is beginning to resemble a sprinkled donut, with peace prevailing mostly in ethnic Hazara strongholds – which suffered heavily under the Taliban – in the center of the country and in scattered provincial capitals.

"There has been a real desire [among the Taliban] to expand in the west and in the north," says Mr. Rashid. "This is the first time they really have been effective there."

At the same time, the traditional battlefields between international forces and the insurgents have only grown hotter. Over the weekend, militant attacks killed nine US and NATO soldiers. And in July, the coalition lost 75 troops, making it their deadliest month of the war in Afghanistan.

The deadly spike can partly be attributed to the injection of additional US forces this summer, says Mr. Rashid. But the increasing sophistication of guerrilla fighters is also contributing.

On his first day on the job as secretary general of NATO, former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen said NATO will stay in Afghanistan "for as long as it takes." He asked European members to supply more troops, saying that he wanted to avoid the impression that the Afghanistan war was becoming largely a US effort.

Many of the attacks out of the west and north still use ethnic Pashtun pockets as launching pads, he says. But it's significant that the attacks are growing more successful in regions far from Pashtun majorities in the south and east.

A key commander

In the case of Herat, much of the unrest recently has been blamed on a non-Pashtun insurgent commander who does not identify as a Taliban, says Ahmad Quraishi, chief reporter in the region for Pajhwok Afghan News.

Commander Ghulam Yahya Akbari, a Tajik, once worked in the government of President Hamid Karzai, but has since taken up armed resistance.

Over the past couple of years, he has been blamed for scores of kidnappings for ransom, some of which resulted in deaths. The Taliban claimed responsibilities for today's attack, saying it was aimed at a district police chief, who has conducted aggressive operations over the past month against Mr. Akbari's forces, says Mr. Quraishi.

Residents in Herat have grown increasingly frustrated with NATO forces in the region, says Quraishi, because the main Italian-led command in the region sits near to where Akbari's forces are active. The local perception is that little has been done against this commander.

Back in February, coalition forces targeted Akbari in an airstrike, but he survived the attack, which killed 13 civilians and three militants.

Akbari has threatened to disrupt any campaigning by candidates and voting during Afghanistan's national elections on August 20. Today's blast hit a crowded commercial center of Herat, sowing further fear over the upcoming vote.

"People are surprised and shocked by this attack today," says Quraishi. "They are worried about the situation as the election is coming – they are worried that they may not be able to cast their vote."

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