KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — American forces suffered a deadly 24 hours in Afghanistan, with eight troops killed in attacks including an audacious Taliban raid on a police compound in the key southern city of Kandahar, officials said Wednesday.
The U.S. and its coalition allies have warned that violence and troop casualties are likely to mount this summer as thousands of new forces fan out across southern insurgent strongholds in a bid to turn around the nearly 9-year-long war.
However, a top U.S. commander in the south said Wednesday that the new operation should start reducing violence in coming months.
So far in July, 45 coalition troops have died in Afghanistan, 33 of them Americans, continuing the upward trend of the previous month, which was war's deadliest for the NATO-led force, with 103 international soldiers killed.
A suicide attacker slammed a car bomb into the gate of the headquarters of the elite Afghan National Civil Order Police late Tuesday night in Kandahar, the international force said. Minutes later, insurgents opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Three U.S. troops, an Afghan policeman and five civilians — three interpreters and two security guards — died in the attack, but NATO said the insurgents failed to enter the compound.
Four more American troops were killed elsewhere in the south Wednesday by a roadside bomb, while one more U.S. service member died the same day of wounds from a gunbattle, also in the south. NATO gave no further details of those attacks.
The special Civil Order Police had only recently sent 600 more officers to Kandahar to set up checkpoints along with international forces to try to secure the south's largest city, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi telephoned reporters Wednesday to claim responsibility for the attack. The insurgents, who are prone to exaggerate death tolls of their enemies, claimed 13 international troops died in the raid.
Also in Kandahar, a pro-government cleric and member of a local people's council was gunned down in a mosque Wednesday. Haji Khalifa, a member of the Pajawai district shura, or council, was shot dead as he prayed, said provincial shura member Agha Haji Lalai.
He said assassinations have increased in Kandahar as insurgents make the point they can still operate despite the extra security.
NATO and Afghan patrols are stepping up patrols around Kandahar province to pressure insurgents in rural areas. The strategy is to improve security with more and better-trained police and troops so that capable governance can take root and development projects can move forward and win the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.
The Taliban have responded by ratcheting up suicide attacks and bombings.
Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, a top U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the new Kandahar operation is still in its early stages and security will begin to improve in coming months as additional American and Afghan forces move into violent areas.
"It's a rising tide," he said. "And that tide is starting to come in now. We're going to start feeling those positive effects here as July turns into August."
In the contested district of Zhari, where the government has far less control than in Kandahar city, Hodges said the timing of the beginning of combat operations will depend on when the Afghans are ready to take the lead in governing. American military forces could clear these areas quickly and decisively, he said, but doing so without establishing local governance and permanent security forces would have negative consequences.
"All that would accomplish is a lot of casualties, ours as well as Afghans," he said, "and we would create even more insurgents because we'd be leaving."
Experience in neighboring Helmand province has proved how difficult it can be to establish an effective government presence after clearing a militant stronghold.
Officials on Wednesday confirmed that the government representative in the troubled southern district of Marjah had been replaced, barely six months after a major NATO military offensive to retake the area from the Taliban.
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said Abdul Zahir has been replaced as district chief as part of a "reform procedure." He would not say if Zahir was removed because of continued instability in Marjah. The southern farming town — much like the current Kandahar push — was intended to be a showcase of good Afghan governance after combined Afghan and international forces expelled the Taliban, but authorities have struggled to consolidate their control.
Hodges, the American commander, said Zahir was ousted for refusing to take a qualification test required under Afghan law. He said he did not have details but suspected the test requirement was waived when Zahir was first recruited as district chief.
Nine Afghan civilians died in Marjah on Tuesday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, the Ministry of Interior said. Another homemade bomb killed two security guards traveling on a road in eastern Paktika province.
On Tuesday in Helmand, Britain's forces suffered a blow when an Afghan soldier partnered with them turned against his unit, killing three British troops, including the company commander, before fleeing. The Taliban later announced the man had surrendered to the insurgents and was in "a safe place."
Afghan Gen. Ghulam Farook Parwani identified the soldier Wednesday as Talib Hussein, age 22 or 23, a Hazara minority Shiite Muslim from the eastern province of Ghazni.
The soldier's identity deepened the mystery of his motive, since the Hazara were persecuted by the Taliban when the hard-liners ruled Afghanistan during 1996-2001 with their extreme interpretation of Islamic law. Taliban are mostly of ethnic Pashtun Sunni Muslims who see Shiites as doctrinally impure.
Parwani said Hussein was recruited into the Afghan army only about eight or nine months previously. He said initial investigations indicate Hussein was a habitual hashish smoker.