ASADABAD, Afghanistan – Afghanistan was rocked Thursday by some of the deadliest violence since the Taliban was driven from power in late 2001.
As many as 105 people were reported killed in four provinces as insurgents torched a district government compound, set off suicide bombs and clashed with Afghan and foreign troops.
Between 80 and 90 Taliban fighters were killed in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, Afghan, U.S. and NATO officials reported. Two sites in Kandahar were struck by U.S. warplanes. A long-range B-1 bomber destroyed a compound Taliban fighters were using to stage an attack, the U.S. military said.
Among the dead were a U.S. State Department trainer killed by a car bomb in Herat province, a female Canadian army captain and at least 12 Afghan national policemen, officials said.
Afghanistan experienced several years of relative calm after the pro-Western government took over in Kabul in 2001. But in recent months, the pace of insurgent attacks has been increasing steadily, and now includes suicide bombings, a tactic long foreign to Afghanistan.
The violence has surged as NATO forces prepare to assume the lead military role in Afghanistan this summer, a transition that some observers believe the Taliban and other insurgent groups are seeking to exploit.
President Hamid Karzai, visiting the capital of eastern Konar province, denounced the new violence as the work of religious fanatics and intelligence services in neighboring Pakistan, saying they had sent young men across the border to stage attacks in the name of holy war.
“In Pakistan, they train people to go to Afghanistan, conduct jihad, burn schools and clinics,” he told a gathering of provincial elders in a long, emotional speech. “What kind of Islam is this?”
Karzai did not blame Pakistan’s president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, calling him a “dear brother” and saying that “terrorism is a fire that will extend to your country, too.”
But he taunted Mohammad Omar, the fugitive Afghan Taliban leader, challenging him to “show yourself” and “come fight with me” instead of hiding.
The president expressed anguish over the death of the Canadian soldier, Capt. Nichola Goddard, who was killed Thursday in a battle with Taliban attackers in Kandahar. “Our land is being protected by a lady from Canada, when we should be protecting her as a guest,” he said.
The escalating violence has led to a deepening rift between Karzai and Musharraf, who are both important U.S. allies. The Afghan government has long asserted that Islamic fighters are being supported and sheltered by groups in Pakistan. In March, Karzai presented Musharraf with a list of armed extremists he said were living in Pakistan.
The Pakistani leader bristled at the accusations and dismissed them as outdated or fabricated. He asserted repeatedly that he was doing his best to combat terrorism in Pakistan, and has sent large numbers of army troops into the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, where Taliban and al-Qaida members are widely believed to be hiding.
“They talk about people crossing from Pakistan, but we have 78,000 troops and 800 check posts,” said Aftab Khan Sherpao, Pakistan’s interior minister, in a recent interview.
“The militants used to feel safer in the tribal areas because of the culture and the religious bent of mind there, but now we are really exerting pressure and tightening the loop. We get flak from the local people, but we have to do it.”
U.S. military officials who work closely with both the Afghan and Pakistani armed forces say they believe Musharraf shares their concerns about regional terrorism and does not seek to destabilize Afghanistan. But it is not clear, they say, to what extent he can control groups in his country that support the Taliban or harbor a lingering ambition to dominate Afghanistan.
Karzai, who rarely travels to remote provinces because of security concerns, arrived here from Kabul on a U.S. military helicopter. As he delivered speeches or moved about the town, he was guarded by several rings of Afghan security teams, with U.S. forces also present.
The president’s vehement remarks about Pakistan were applauded by provincial leaders, and in welcoming poems and songs, young Afghans exhorted him to be tough on “our neighbor enemies.”
In his public statements, Karzai has attempted to draw a line between violent Islamic fundamentalists and ordinary Afghan Muslims. But questions that Karzai received here underlined why it has been difficult to uproot the revived Islamic insurgency even with thousands of foreign troops aiding the new Afghan army and police.
In a brief interview after his speech, Karzai said he had not given up on Musharraf and recognized his strategic importance to the U.S.-led anti-terrorist effort. But the Afghan president said he had come under a lot of domestic pressure to get tough with Pakistan.
“People see that nothing has changed, and they are very angry,” he said. “They want me to stop talking nicely and do something.”