NATO says increased military ops behind high death toll

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Intensified military operations against the Taliban are behind a surge in troop deaths in Afghanistan, NATO said Sunday, as the alliance announced the 93rd fatality in a record month for casualties.

NATO's International Security Assistance Force said three more foreign soldiers had died in Taliban attacks -- two US personnel killed in gunfights on Sunday and one from an unidentified nation in a bomb blast on Saturday.

The deaths bring to 313 the total number of soldiers to have died in Afghanistan this year. The number killed in June alone stands at 93, according to an AFP count, by far the deadliest monthly toll since the war began.

However, an ISAF spokesman said the toll was a measure of success as the alliance takes the fight to the Taliban with the deployment of thousands more troops into the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

"With the build-up of the additional reinforcements we have been able to confront the insurgency and Taliban in areas where they have not been challenged for years," Brigadier General Josef Blotz said.

"That's one of the reasons that we're seeing some more violence these days and weeks. And unfortunately this also leads to a higher casualty rate," he told reporters.

The deaths come as questions intensify over the war effort following last week's sacking of the top US military officer in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, over an inflammatory magazine profile.

In Washington the head of the CIA, Leon Panetta, acknowledged the war had been "a very tough fight".

"We are making progress. But it's harder and slower than anyone anticipated," he told the ABC network.

Britain's army chief said meanwhile that he believed talks with the Taliban should begin "pretty soon" as part of the exit strategy for international forces.

General David Richards told the BBC: "If you look at any counter-insurgency campaign throughout history, there's always been a point at which you start to negotiate with each other, probably through proxies in the first instance, and I don't know when that will happen."

"But at the same time you have got to continue the work we are doing on both the military, governance and development perspectives to make sure that they (the Taliban) don't think that we are giving up."

There are 140,000 international, mostly US, troops in Afghanistan, and their numbers are set to peak at 150,000 by August.

McChrystal issued a highly critical assessment of the war days before he was fired by President Barack Obama, a British newspaper reported Sunday.

The Independent on Sunday said leaked military documents showed McChrystal had briefed defence ministers from the countries involved in the war earlier this month and warned them to expect no progress in the next six months.

McChrystal was forced to step down as commander of the NATO-led force due to disparaging remarks about administration officials, including Obama, in the explosive article carried by Rolling Stone.

But the newspaper suggested the article was only one reason why the general quit, saying his candour about the situation was an obstacle to Obama's plans for an early US withdrawal.

Police in western Afghanistan said meanwhile that more than a dozen rebels had been killed in fighting with Afghan and international forces, mostly on Saturday.

Ten rebels were killed in a gunfight with NATO-led troops in the northwestern province of Badghis while four others were killed after attacking a police convoy transporting captured militants in neighbouring Farah, police said.

On Friday eight Arabs, five Pakistanis and two Afghans were killed when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded while they were producing the devices at a mosque in Paktia province, the interior ministry said.

But even as political opposition in NATO countries builds against the war, ISAF's Blotz sad the tide was turning.

"It's a tough time we're in. We're in the arena, there's no way out now. We've to stay on," the spokesman said.

"We have to fight this campaign and it's actually getting a little harder," he said, adding that by the end of 2010 "you'll see progress and success because of that increased level of the security".

© 2010 AFP

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