Thursday, September 18, 2008

2008 Now Most Lethal Year In Afghanistan

By Jason Straziuso - The Associated Press
Posted : Monday Sep 15, 2008 6:07:43 EDT

An insurgent attack on an eastern compound killed a soldier Thursday, bringing the year’s death toll to 112 and making 2008 the deadliest for American forces in Afghanistan since the U.S. invaded the country in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The NATO-led force said the soldier was killed in eastern Afghanistan “when insurgents attacked a compound.” It provided no other details, but a western military said the soldier was American.

Afghanistan was the launching pad for al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. In response, U.S. forces invaded in October 2001 and drove the Taliban out of power in a matter of weeks.

Once derided as a ragtag insurgency after the fall of their regime, Taliban fighters have transformed into a fighting force advanced enough to mount massive conventional attacks. Suicide and roadside bombs have turned bigger and deadlier than ever.

The number of Arab, Chechen and Uzbek militants flowing into the Afghan-Pakistan theater have increased this year, bringing with them command expertise the Taliban had lacked in previous years.

Top U.S. generals, European presidents and analysts say the blame lies to the east, in militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. As long as those areas remain havens where fighters arm, train, recruit and plot increasingly sophisticated ambushes, the Afghan war will continue to sour.

Meanwhile, President Bush over the summer secretly approved U.S. military raids inside Pakistan against alleged terrorist targets, according to a former intelligence official with recent access to the Bush administration's debate about how to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban inside the lawless tribal border area. The order gives new authority to U.S. special operations forces to target suspected terrorists in the dangerous area along the Afghanistan border.

In addition, conventional ground troops have new authority to pursue militants across the Afghan border. The "rules of engagement" have been loosened, allowing troops to conduct border attacks without being fired on first if they witness attacks coming from the region. That would include artillery, rockets and mortar fire from the Pakistan side of the border.

The Pakistani government is not told about the targets in advance because of concerns that the Pakistani intelligence service and military are infiltrated by al-Qaida and Taliban supporters, said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the classified order.

U.S. counterterror operations along the border are highly unpopular in Pakistan, whose new leadership is trying hard to show independence from Washington.

At the same time, the former official said, the Pakistan government recognizes that its settled areas are increasingly targeted by terrorist and militant attacks emanating from the tribal region and its military is not equipped to counter the threat.

Thursday’s death brings to 112 the number of troops who have died in Afghanistan this year, surpassing last year’s record toll of 111.

Some 33,000 U.S. troops are now stationed in the country, the highest level since 2001. Overall, more than 65,000 troops from 40 nations are deployed in Afghanistan.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan on Thursday remembered those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks during ceremonies at bases around the country. In Kabul, Army Maj. Gen. Robert Cone told those gathered for a memorial ceremony at Camp Eggers that terrorists have struck in London, Russia and Indonesia since hitting the U.S.

“These attacks are reminders that the threat of terrorism is real and still a danger to the entire world,” Cone said.

Cone’s command in Kabul trains and equips the fledgling Afghan security forces — the centerpiece of the American strategy of turning Afghanistan into a country that can defend itself and away from the days when Osama bin Laden used it as a safe haven to launch attacks in New York and Washington.

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