Death of five soldiers in helicopter crash reminds America of its Afghan conflict

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The Independent Online

The death of five United States soldiers in a helicopter crash just north of Kabul yesterday gave Americans an unpleasant reminder of the unresolved campaign in Afghanistan, the second and often forgotten front in President George Bush's war against terrorism.

The cause of the incident - in which eight soldiers were also wounded - was still not clear, 24 hours after the MH-53 helicopter went down after it left coalition headquarters at Bagram Air Base.

Anti-US militants claimed that sustained machine-gun fire from the ground was responsible, but the Pentagon said mechanical failure was a more likely explanation. Eight soldiers were also wounded in the crash. What is clear is that, two years after the overthrow of the former Taliban regime which sheltered Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida organisation, the war continues and that, in some areas, that former malign alliance is regrouping.

The attacks, some from bases in the tribal areas just inside Pakistan, now constitute an increasing threat, not only for the 8,500 US troops in the field against them but also to international efforts to rebuild the country. Indeed, according to General John Abizaid, head of US Central Command which ran both the 2001 Afghan campaign and the 2003 Iraq war, "daily combat operations in Afghanistan are every bit as much and every bit as difficult as those in Iraq". In the past six months, 13 aid workers have been killed, most recently a French employee of the United Nations who was shot dead in the southern town of Ghanzi. Shortly before the MH-53 came down, two US soldiers were wounded when the jeep in which they were travelling was struck by a remote controlled bomb.

That ambush came near the flashpoint town of Shkin, close to the Pakistan border and not far from where two CIA agents were killed in an ambush last month. In all, some 35 Americans have died from hostile fire since the start of the war; nine in the Shkin region since January, according to the Pentagon.

The fatalities may be less than one-tenth of those in Iraq this year but the continuing violence, despite the presence of over 11,000 coalition soldiers, is evidence of how great swathes of Afghanistan, dominated by war lords or plagued by Taliban and al-Qa'ida resistance, are beyond the grip of the US-supported government of Hamid Karzai, the President, in Kabul. Drug production, sharply reduced in Taliban times, is again soaring. Though Nato plans to send more soldiers to various provincial centres, the numbers available at present fall far short of the hopes of Mr Karzai and his American patrons. In the violence-plagued south and east especially, aid organisations are scaling back their operations.

Even in Kabul, were 5,300 Nato troops are deployed to keep order, signs of instability are multiplying. At the weekend, an explosion damaged the capital's Intercontinental Hotel, and at least one person was killed during a gunfight at the Defence Ministry, sparked by a demonstration by dismissed officers.

Afghanistan was a little noted beneficiary of the $87bn (£51bn) package recently approved by Congress, mainly to cover the cost of operations in Iraq. But the mounting evidence that elements of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida are staging a comeback fuels the argument of critics of the Iraq war, that the Bush administration had lost its focus on the real terror threat.

The Afghan danger has been stressed by George Robertson, the outgoing Nato Secretary General. If order was not restored, he said on the sidelines of a session of the alliance's parliamentary assembly, "we will find Afghanistan on all our doorsteps".

¿ The US has released 20 prisoners from its military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and returned them to their home countries. But it has added another 20 suspects. No charges have been filed against any of the 660 prisoners at the US navy base. A total of 84 prisoners have been transferred so far to their home countries for release and four others have been returned to Saudi Arabia for imprisonment there.