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In Afghanistan, a bloody shift

Associated Press
Published January 21, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan - Bashir Jan remembers the bearded suicide bomber arriving on a motorbike. The blast that followed tore through the crowd where he was watching a wrestling match and left a carnage of severed limbs, bloodied faces and 21 dead.

It was the latest of 20 suicide attacks that have rocked Afghanistan since late September, compared with just four in the first nine months of 2005, according to figures compiled by the Associated Press, marking a tactical shift by Taliban and al-Qaida militants.

The U.S. military calls it a sign of desperation, but it's spooking other NATO countries as they prepare to deploy thousands of troops to the volatile south of the country to take over from American forces. Political opposition in the Netherlands is so strong it has led to a parliamentary debate on whether to approve the planned deployment and threatened to topple the government.

Monday's attack on the wrestling match at a fair in Spinboldak, near the border with Pakistan, was the deadliest suicide bombing since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

Suicide bombings used to be rare in Afghanistan. There were none in 2002, two in 2003, four in 2004 and four from January 2005 until late September, when the recent spate of 20 started, according to information provided by the U.S. military, NATO peacekeepers and Afghan officials.

U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts said the recent attacks appear timed to intimidate the international community ahead of two key events: an aid donors' conference in London this month and the switch by midyear from U.S. forces to NATO troops in the south.

"The Taliban and al-Qaida understand how important this time is right now," Yonts said. "These recent attacks do not show a more capable enemy. ... What it does show are acts of desperation."

Yonts said the militants are not as sophisticated or as technically minded as those in Iraq, with many of their bombs exploding prematurely, hitting the wrong targets or lacking explosives. But he predicted suicide attacks would continue.

President Hamid Karzai said last week that the suicide bombings were "a sign of defeat" on the part of the Taliban.

He said he believes many of the recent bombers were drug addicts duped into killing themselves. Others, he said, were foreigners.

But his reassurances that suicide bombers don't pose a major new security threat have failed to convince many Afghans.

Violence last year left about 1,600 people dead, the most since 2001, and the spike in suicide bombings along with a spate of killings of regional chiefs, progovernment clerics and aid workers have raised fears that worse is to come.

"Day by day, things are deteriorating. The Taliban are learning new tactics just by watching Palestinian and Iraqi militants on TV," said Taj Mohammed Wardak, a former interior minister.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 01:34:14]

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