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Old 12-31-2007, 02:05 PM
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Default 110 US troops die in Afghanistan in 2007


KABUL, Afghanistan - U.S. military deaths, suicide bombings and opium production hit record highs in 2007. Taliban militants killed more than 925 Afghan police, and large swaths of the country remain outside government control.

But U.S. officials here insist things are looking up: The Afghan army is assuming a larger combat role, and militants appear unlikely to mount a major spring offensive, as had been feared a year ago. Training for Afghan police is increasing.

Still, six years after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, violence persists in much of southern Afghanistan where the government has little presence, and recent militant attacks in Pakistan highlight a long-term regional problem with al-Qaida and the Taliban.

Civilian deaths caused by U.S. and NATO forces in the first half of the year rattled the government, and more foreign fighters flowed into the country.

Taliban fighters avoided head-on battles with U.S., NATO and Afghan army forces in 2007, resorting instead to ambushes and suicide bombings, but militants attacked the weakest of Afghan forces to devastating effect.

More than 925 Afghan policemen died in Taliban ambushes in 2007, including 16 killed Saturday during an assault on a Helmand province checkpoint.

"The Taliban attack whom they perceive to be the most vulnerable, and in this case it's the police," said Lt. Col. Dave Johnson, a spokesman for the U.S. troops who train Afghan police and soldiers. "They don't travel in large formations like the army does. That puts them in an area of vulnerability."

Afghanistan in 2007 saw record violence that killed more than 6,500 people, including 110 U.S. troops the highest level ever in Afghanistan and almost 4,500 militants, according to an Associated Press count. Britain lost 41 soldiers, while Canada lost 30. Other nations lost a total of 40.

The AP count is based on figures from Western and Afghan officials and is not definitive. Afghan officials are known to exaggerate Taliban deaths, for instance, and NATO's International Security Assistance Force does not release numbers of militants it killed, meaning AP's estimate of 4,478 militants deaths could be low.

Seth Jones, an analyst with the RAND Corp. who follows Afghanistan, said the country's ability to improve governance is vital to defeating the insurgency.

"The thing that concerns me most," he said, "is the general perception in Afghanistan that the government is not capable of meeting the basic demands of its population, that it's involved in corruption ... that it's unable to deliver services in key rural areas, that it's not able to protect its population, especially the police."

The Taliban this year abandoned the strategy of large-force attacks after devastating losses in 2006 and has shown no signs of mass regrouping, but Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, promised an increase in suicide attacks, ambushes and roadside bombs against U.S. and NATO forces in 2008.

"We will gain more sympathies of the Afghan people because the people are upset with this government because this government has failed," he said.

Taliban suicide bombers set off a record number of attacks this year more than 140 and in many ways they became more sophisticated.

In February a suicide bomber killed 23 people outside the main U.S. base at Bagram during a visit by Vice President Dick Cheney. A suicide bomber in June killed 35 people on a police bus. And in November a suicide bombing that killed six lawmakers also left a total of 77 people dead after security guards opened fire on a crowd of onlookers. Sixty-one children were killed.

The fight against poppies failed: Afghanistan this year produced 93 percent of the world's opium, the main ingredient in heroin.

Despite those developments, Mark Stroh, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, said Afghanistan's progress in security, governance and development was promising.

"Last year at this time, there was grave concern that the Taliban were going to overrun large parts of the country. That clearly has not been the case," Stroh said.

U.S. military operations killed or detained more than 50 "significant" militant leaders, said Lt. Col. David Accetta, a military spokesman. The eastern region of the country where U.S. forces primarily operate now has 85 government centers, he said. There were no government centers during the Taliban rule.

"It's a clear example of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan expanding its reach to the people," he said.

Jones, the analyst, said the recent violence in Pakistan where Taliban and al-Qaida fighters have found sanctuary near the Afghan border is an ominous sign for the U.S. and NATO.

"Al-Qaida, Taliban and other militants have really become a regional problem," he said. "If in 2008 the U.S., NATO in general, is unable to make any notable differences in the (Pakistani) tribal areas, the situation in Afghanistan will not get better."
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