- The Washington Times - Friday, January 8, 2010

Military officials expect violence to increase in Afghanistan during the winter as the U.S. increases forces in the region, even though the harsh, cold weather usually leads to a lull in battles along the country’s mountainous southern and eastern provinces.

On Thursday, a suicide bomber killed at least nine people in a marketplace in Kabul. On the same day, another bomb exploded at the provincial governor’s compound, injuring the governor and several of his aides.

Meanwhile, in the country’s eastern city of Jalalabad, about 5,000 demonstrators set fire to an effigy of President Obama and yelled, “Death to America,” as they protested the deaths of several children who were killed Wednesday in an explosion. Afghan officials said the explosion was caused by a land mine that detonated when an Afghan National Police vehicle struck the device. International Security Forces said the blast also injured nine Western troops.

Lt. Col. Edward Sholtis, a spokesman for Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, told The Washington Times that insurgents are expected to continue fighting as the U.S. increases forces in the region.

“We project the next six months will see a further increase in violence as we continue to expand into contested areas and the insurgents act against coalition forces and the population to prevent us from gaining momentum,” Col. Sholtis said. “In general, violent activity was up 60 percent in 2009 versus 2008, with less variation in activity levels between the seasons.”

The past 13 months have been the deadliest for troops in Afghanistan since the start of the war in October 2001. In 2009, an estimated 520 troops were killed in Afghanistan, according to iCasualties.org, which monitors Western troop casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same year, about 150 troops were killed in Iraq, the Web site shows.

The majority of those troops were killed by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which are roadside bombs built in makeshift camps and homes that harbor insurgent fighters. The bombs have become the deadliest weapons against the U.S.-led coalition and account for 60 percent of all troop fatalities in the country.

In some instances, the devices can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds and have the capability of tearing apart some of the coalition’s most protective vehicles.

Suicide bombings also are on the rise, with a growing number of attacks targeting intelligence, military and nongovernmental organization personnel in the region. The most recent suicide bombing killed seven CIA employees - four officers and three contracted security guards - in the eastern province of Khost.

Military officials have witnessed a shift in fighting during the past two winters as the Taliban insurgency, along with al Qaeda operatives, have had to fight a growing International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

On Sunday, four U.S. soldiers became the first causalities of the new year when they were killed by a roadside bomb. A British soldier on foot patrol in Helmand province was killed in a separate incident, ISAF officials said.

Meanwhile, Gen. McChrystal and other top Pentagon officials are closely watching developments in Afghanistan’s fragile government situation after its parliament rejected most members of President Hamid Karzai’s Cabinet.

On Jan. 2, the parliament rejected 17 of the 24 Cabinet nominations proposed by Mr. Karzai. The parliament was scheduled to start a six-week break Tuesday, which would leave Afghanistan without a majority of functioning government ministries. It is a difficult situation for U.S. and international forces commanders who are working to fight corruption as part of their counterinsurgency strategy.

“Our established position is that better government legitimacy at all levels improves chances for success in [counterinsurgency],” Col. Sholtis said. “Coalition and Afghan security efforts are helped if negotiations between the parliament and the president result in the appointment of officials who have greater credibility among the majority of Afghans.”

Mr. Karzai, whose election was mired by charges of corruption and fraud, is expected to present a new list to the parliament Saturday. He has ordered his parliament to delay its winter recess until he proposes new ministers in place of those who were rejected.

However, the parliament approved the incumbent defense, interior, finance, agriculture and education ministers.

“It certainly will have a slowing-down effect on economic development while the parliament and Karzai negotiate,” said a U.S. military official familiar with the ongoing political crisis who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive and continuing negotiations.

“It will also pose some potential problems for our commanders whose strategy requires more than just fighting but reaching the hearts and minds of the Afghan people,” the official said.

On Thursday, Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican and Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, led a delegation to the region to meet with top leaders to discuss the U.S. war strategy. The lawmakers said drone strikes are effective tools against suspected militants, according to United Press International.

“The drone strikes are part of an overall set of tactics which make up the strategy for victory,” said Mr. McCain. “They have been very effective, and they have knocked al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist organizations off balance.”

Mr. Lieberman said the drones were “a critical element of our effort, our campaign, our strategy to deny the terrorists who are terrorizing the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan a safe haven from which to strike them and us in the United States.”

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