- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan

A roadside bomb killed four American troops in eastern Afghanistan on Sunday - new evidence of rising violence in a region where U.S. officials say clashes and attacks have doubled since early last year.

The spike in violence along the border is an early indication that roadside bombs and other ambushes are likely to surge as spring arrives and thousands of new U.S. forces arrive in Afghanistan this year.

Brig. Gen. Richard Blanchette, a spokesman for the NATO-led force here, confirmed that a roadside bomb killed four U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan. A U.S. statement indicated the troops were based in Jalalabad.

A suicide bomber, meanwhile, attacked a NATO convoy in Kabul on Sunday, but instead killed two passers-by - among 18 people killed Sunday, officials said.

Clashes and attacks in the eastern province of Kunar surged 131 percent in January and February from the first two months of 2008, said Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, a U.S. spokeswoman.

Bomb and gunfire attacks are up in part because 700 10th Mountain Division soldiers were deployed to Kunar in early January, putting more soldiers in harm’s way.

Kunar’s rise in violence is likely indicative of what the 17,000 U.S. troops that President Obama has ordered to Afghanistan will face later this year. Hoping to reverse Taliban gains, the troops will move into areas of the country where few other foreign or Afghan soldiers have held a long-term presence.

Many of those areas are likely to have conditions similar to Kunar, where “the enemy that has a traditional hold in the area are deeply entrenched with the population,” Col. Nielson-Green said.

“The population is also very xenophobic and are largely ‘fence-sitters,’ ” Afghans who have not pledged allegiance to either the government or the militants, she said.

The 10th Mountain troops moved into Kunar, near the porous Pakistani border, while the Pakistani military was conducting a six-month offensive against militants in Pakistan’s Bajur tribal area, which has been an important safe haven for insurgents.

Bajur is thought to be a hiding place for al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and Pakistan’s offensive there earned praise from American officials concerned that militants were using the area as a base from which to plan attacks in Afghanistan.

Last week, Pakistan signed a peace deal with the Mamund tribe after claiming victory in its fight. The tribe controls a large swath of Bajur and its ranks have yielded many Taliban leaders. The tribe, whose members straddle the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, has agreed to stop sheltering foreign fighters and hand over local Taliban leaders there.

But while Pakistan has seen success in Bajur, violence has more than doubled in Kunar across the border in Afghanistan.

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