KABUL, Afghanistan – An explosives-packed minibus blew up at the entrance of a joint NATO-Afghan base in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, killing six NATO troops and two Afghan soldiers as they prepared to head out on patrol.
NATO has claimed improvements in security after months of raids, patrols and strikes on insurgents in Kandahar province, but Sunday's blast — the deadliest attack on coalition troops this month — shows the area is still far from safe.
The assault comes days ahead of a major White House review of its Afghan strategy following President Barack Obama's decision last year to send 30,000 American reinforcements in a bid to reverse gains by the Taliban since they were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.
Afghan officials said Sunday's suicide attack took place in Kandahar's Zhari district, where Mullah Mohammad Omar organized the Taliban in the early 1990s. Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the blast, saying the insurgent group was retaliating for attacks on its fighters in the area in recent months.
U.S. and Afghan forces launched a major operation in September to secure Zhari, a lush farming region of irrigation canals and grape vineyards that the Taliban have used as a staging area for attacks in nearby Kandahar city and other parts of the south.
Zhari has remained insurgent territory despite five major NATO operations in recent years. In 2006, a Canadian-led force launched a concerted push in Zhari and nearby Panjwai district, driving out the Taliban but at a cost of 28 coalition lives. Months later, the Taliban were back.
In a two-day trip to Afghanistan last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said Washington's year-old surge strategy for the war is working and the goal of pulling U.S. troops out of major combat by 2014 can be met.
"Coalition and Afghan forces are suffering more casualties, but there is no denying that the security climate is improving and that the sacrifices of Afghan and coalition troops are achieving greater safety and security for both our nations," Gates told reporters.
"Our troops are coordinating together at an extraordinary pace in areas where we did not operate a year ago and with Afghan forces increasingly in the lead."
At the Howz-E-Madad base in Zhari district, the No. 2 coalition commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, told reporters last weeked that he expected the enemy to retaliate after losing "a bunch of terrain they used to control."
He said insurgents are responding with a "murder and intimidation campaign" to try and stop the progress that coalition forces are making in the south.
In Sunday's attack, a suicide bomber drove a minibus into the entrance of the coalition base just as troops were preparing vehicles to move out on a morning patrol, said Gen. Abdul Hamid, the Afghan army chief for Kandahar province.
"They were leaving the compound and at that moment, the minibus attacked and they hit right at the entrance of the base," Hamid said.
NATO said that the six service members had been killed in an insurgent attack and did not disclose their nationality. Most coalition forces in the south are American.
More than 680 international troops have been killed so far this year, well above the 502 killed in the whole of 2009. The last attack to kill that many NATO troops happened Nov. 29, when an Afghan policeman turned his gun on his American trainers in the east, killing six of them before he himself was shot dead. The Taliban claimed that they had sent him to join the police as a sleeper agent.
Two weeks before that attack, insurgents killed five U.S. soldiers in an attack in eastern Afghanistan.
The level of ongoing fighting and the mounting death toll will be key to the Obama administration's December review of its Afghanistan strategy. The president has committed to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in June 2011, but the feasibility of that goal will depend greatly on whether commanders believe the surge of 30,000 troops ordered a year ago has reined in violence to the point that Afghan forces can start taking the lead.
Even if the operation in Kandahar is deemed a success, NATO is now scrambling to contain a spike in violence in other parts of the country. In the east on Sunday, NATO said a joint NATO-Afghan force killed a Taliban leader and captured a key member of another militant group.
The Taliban leader, identified only as Fedahi, was involved in weapons smuggling and attacks in eastern Wardak province, the coalition said in a statement.
NATO said two men threatened coalition troops as they entered a compound Saturday night where Fedahi was suspected of staying. They shot and killed both men, one of whom was later identified as Fedahi, the statement said.
In a separate raid in eastern Khost province Saturday night, NATO and Afghan troops captured a leader of the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based Taliban faction closely tied to al-Qaida.
The troops captured the targeted militant in a compound in Terayzai district, according to a statement. The detainee, it said, has conducted bomb attacks and ambushes against Afghan and coalition troops.