KABUL/KUNDUZ, Afghanistan Taliban insurgents attacked Kabul and a major city in the north on Sunday as the toll for foreign troops killed in 2010 passed 700, nearly a third of the total killed in over nine years of war.
Two militants wearing suicide vests attacked a bus carrying Afghan army officers in Kabul, killing five and wounding nine, the Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the assault, the first major attack in the Afghan capital since May, when six foreign troops were killed by a large suicide car bomb.
In the north, nine Afghan soldiers and police were killed when at least four suicide bombers entered an army recruitment center in the city of Kunduz, visited a day earlier by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, police and the Defense Ministry said.
Another 15 were wounded during a day-long battle.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai said in a statement the attacks were a "major and unforgiving crime...(by) Afghanistan's enemies opposing the strengthening of the Afghan security forces."
Afghan forces make an easier target than better-equipped foreign troops, who are usually inside tightly guarded compounds or heavily armored vehicles. But with both NATO and Karzai keen to build up domestic forces to speed the departure of foreign troops, they are also a strategic target for insurgents.
In Kabul, insurgents wearing explosive vests opened fire on a bus carrying the officers on the main Jalalabad road, the site of NATO and Afghan army bases and several similar attacks.
One attacker blew himself up and the other was shot by police before he could detonate his explosives. Television pictures of a burned-out bus and soldiers limping from the scene showed the ferocity of the attack.
In Kunduz, two attackers blew themselves up at the entrance to the army recruitment center in the early morning, but a gun battle raged into the afternoon with at least two other attackers making it inside, a Reuters witness said.
Artillery rounds sporadically hit the building, from which around 40 soldiers had escaped. Small arms rang out from inside.
"Nine Afghan forces -- five soldiers and four police -- have been killed," senior Kunduz police officer Abdul Rahman Abtaash told reporters. "The incident is over."
GRIM MILESTONE AS INSURGENCY SPREADS
The grim milestone of 700 was reached after a member of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was killed overnight by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan. Another was killed in a separate homemade bomb attack later on Sunday. ISAF gave no other details of the incidents.
A total of 521 foreign troops were killed in 2009, previously the worst year of the war, but operations against the Taliban-led insurgency have intensified over the past 18 months.
At least 2,270 foreign troops have been killed since 2001, according to figures kept by Reuters and monitoring website www.iCasualties.org, roughly two-thirds of them Americans.
Afghan troops and police have suffered far higher casualties, but the government does not release exact figures. Civilian casualties are also at record levels this year.
A war strategy review released by President Barack Obama last week found NATO-led forces were making headway against the Taliban, but serious challenges remained.
The Taliban are at their strongest since they were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda militants, including Osama bin Laden.
They have spread out of traditional heartlands in the south and east over the past two years, bringing violence into once peaceful areas of the north and west.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said last week that worsening violence had made it harder for aid groups to reach those in need than at any time in the past three decades.
The conflict has expanded as countries which have dispatched troops to back Karzai are looking for ways to bring them home and cut spending on a war increasingly unpopular with voters.
"The deteriorating security situation in the north and northwest raise deep political and economic concerns," Eurasia group Analyst Maria Kuusisto said in a note published on Friday.
NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Lisbon last month to end combat operations and hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014, a date chosen by Karzai. Obama has promised to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from July 2011.
But critics say the 2014 target is too ambitious. They point to shortcomings in Afghanistan's security forces and say that a target to begin withdrawing troops only emboldens the insurgents.