Record level of violence in Afghanistan

US military deaths, suicide bombings and opium production hit record highs in 2007. Taliban militants killed more than 925 Afghan police. But US officials insist things are looking up.

The Afghan army is assuming a larger combat role, and militants are unlikely to mount a major offensive next spring, as was feared would happen a year ago. Training for the Afghan police force is increasing.

Still, six years after the 2001 US-led invasion, violence is pervasive in wide swathes of southern Afghanistan in Helmand, Uruzgan and Kandahar provinces regions where the government has little presence. Militants moved into Wardak, one province south of Kabul.

Civilian deaths caused by US 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 US, NATO and Afghan army forces in 2007, resorting instead to ambushes and suicide bombings. But militants did attack the weakest of Afghan forces to devastating effect.

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

"The Taliban attack who they perceive to be the most vulnerable, and in this case it's the police," said Lt. Col. Dave Johnson, a spokesman for the US 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 a record level of violence that killed more than 6,500 people, including 110 US troops the highest 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 his biggest concern for the country is increasing questions about the quality of governance, a necessary component to defeat an insurgency.

"This was an increasingly violent year, but the bigger picture is that not all is terrible," Jones said.

"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."

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said militant fighters will increase suicide attacks, ambushes and roadside bombs against US 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. He also said fighters have "new weapons" they would use against NATO forces.

Taliban suicide attackers 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 US base at Bagram during a visit by US 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 school 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 US Embassy in Kabul, called 2007 a good year, saying the country made progress in security, governance and development.

"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.

US 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 US forces primarily operate now has 85 government centers, with 53 more under construction, 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 sanctuary near the Afghan border shows the longterm trouble the US and NATO could face.

"I think the developments there have been deeply troubling," he said. "What you see is al-Qaida, Taliban and other militants have really become a regional problem. ... If in 2008 the US, NATO in general, is unable to make any notable differences in the (Pakistani) tribal areas, the situation in Afghanistan will not get better."

Jones also said that NATO does not have enough troops to clear and hold areas in the south like Helmand and Kandahar.

The Afghan army, though, has begun to plan, lead and execute operations. Still, the 16 police killed in the ambush in Helmand's Maywand district is a telling bookend to a violent year. The Interior Ministry says more than 850 police were killed since March 21, the beginning of the Islamic calendar, and an AP count found 74 others killed the previous months.

"The police all the time are face to face with the enemy. They are doing difficult jobs in difficult areas," said Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary.

US soldiers and trainers in the coming year will put Afghan police through an intensive eight-week course called Focus District Development, that aims to give police individualized attention, said Johnson. Afterward US trainers will spend two months shadowing the police.

Afghan police, historically low-paid and undertrained, are seen as a major weak link in Afghanistan's development.

"We believe that Focus District Development is the way forward," said Johnson. "It's going to take a full court press to train a quality national police and army."