In strikes on US in Afghanistan, Taliban reveals new potency

Two attacks on American forces come as allies Pakistan and Afghanistan are calling for dialog with the Taliban.

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In a sign of the Taliban's growing military vigor in Afghanistan, militants downed a US military helicopter near the Afghan capital Monday, while a suicide bomber struck and killed two Americans in northern Afghanistan.

The twin attacks come at a time of deepening divide between the US military and its allies: Pakistan and Afghanistan are increasingly calling for dialogue with Taliban militants, while Washington has resolved to unilaterally strike Taliban militants based in Pakistan.

In Warduk, near Kabul, militants fired on a Black Hawk helicopter as it was patrolling, forcing it to land, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

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The crew members of the helicopter, forced down in a province neighboring Kabul, were rescued and troops were "in the process of recovering" the aircraft, said Lt. Cmdr. Walter Matthews, a US military spokesman.

At least four insurgents were killed in the exchange, said Fazel Karim Muslim, the chief of Sayed Abad district.

The Los Angeles Times points the significance of the attack:

In more than seven years of fighting, insurgents have only rarely managed to down Western helicopters. Choppers are a crucial mode of transport for troops and supplies, because many of Afghanistan's roads are poorly maintained and dangerous, and Western bases are widely scattered amid extremely rough terrain.

Also Monday, a suicide bomber struck American police trainers who were meeting with Afghan police officials, Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reports.

The bomber entered the police station while Afghan officials were meeting US troops advising a police training programme, provincial police chief Gen Abdul Rahman Sayed Kheil said. The blast killed two American soldiers who were beside a Humvee, news footage of the scene showed.
US forces in Afghanistan confirmed that two "service members" from the US-led coalition were killed and three were wounded.
A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, claimed responsibility for the blast.

Currently 60,000 US-led NATO troops serve in Afghanistan. Attacks like these have made 2008 the deadliest year for them, theAP notes.

More U.S. and NATO troops have died this year in Afghanistan than any other year since the 2001 U.S. invasion, in part because Taliban militants are launching increasingly complex and deadly attacks.

Icasualties.org, an independent website that tracks coalition deaths in Afghanistan, adds that 254 foreign soldiers have been killed this year, up from 232 last year, of whom 150 have been American. Since 2001, when the US began its military campaign in Afghanistan, 1,003 foreign soldiers have been killed, of whom 625 were American.

Those deadly attacks continue despite a concerted – and controversial – effort by the US military to target Taliban strongholds in Pakistan. US officials say many of the Taliban's leaders and foot soldiers are based inside Pakistan's rugged tribal belt, where neither Pakistani nor American forces can penetrate.

The New York Times reported this week that Washington has stepped up a program to eliminate those strongholds through airstrikes.

According to American and Pakistani officials, attacks by remotely piloted Predator aircraft have increased sharply in frequency and scope in the past three months.
Through Sunday, there were at least 18 Predator strikes since the beginning of August, some deep inside Pakistan's tribal areas, compared with 5 strikes during the first seven months of 2008....
The decision to focus on an intensified Predator campaign using Hellfire missiles appears to reflect dwindling options on the part of the White House for striking a blow against Al Qaeda in the Bush administration's waning days.

The paper adds, however, that airstrikes alone cannot solve the problem:

At the same time, however, officials said that relying on airstrikes alone, the United States would be unable to weaken Al Qaeda's grip in the tribal areas permanently. Within the government, advocates of the ground raids have argued that only by sending Special Operations forces into Pakistan can the United States successfully capture suspected operatives and interrogate them for information about top Qaeda leaders.

As the American attacks continue, and as violence rises on both sides of the border, Pakistan and Afghanistan are scrambling to devise a strategy for joint cooperation. On Tuesday, officials from both sides met in Islamabad in the first of what are planned to be several joint jirgas, or congresses, to discuss counterterrorism, reports Pakistan's Daily Times.

"This is the gravest threat to both countries and they need to co-operate closely to effectively counter and completely eliminate this curse," [Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi] said while addressing the inaugural session of the Pak-Afghan mini jirga (jirga gai).

"The mini-jirga, which is called jirgagai, comprises 25 notables each from Pakistan and Afghanistan," according to Dawn.

Dawn adds that both Pakistan and Afghanistan reiterated the need for dialogue with militant elements, a move that is increasingly seen on both sides as an important option but that many in Washington have opposed.

Advocating a dialogue for sustainable peace, [Qureshi] said that there was an increasing realisation among those involved in the conflict that the use of force alone could not produce desired results."
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