KANDAHAR The top U.S. military officer made an unannounced trip to Afghanistan on Friday, aiming to reassure a country rattled by a wave of high-profile attacks and assassinations.
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. officials had long predicted the kind of attacks that have shaken southern Afghanistan and Kandahar province in recent weeks.
"We're not surprised at the spectacular attacks. We thought that's where they'd try to go. That's where they're going and we've got to work hard to prevent that," Mullen told reporters before departing for Kandahar province.
A suicide bomber killed the mayor of Kandahar on Wednesday, compounding fears of a dangerous power vacuum in Afghanistan's south in the wake of the assassination of President Hamid Karzai's half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.
Kandahar is the Taliban's birthplace and a focus of efforts by U.S. troops to turn the tide against the insurgency and bolster local government.
The assassinations threaten to undermine that goal. More than half of all targeted killings in Afghanistan between April and June were carried out in Kandahar, according to a U.N. report.
The police chief of Kandahar province, Khan Mohammad Khan, was killed by an attacker wearing a police uniform in mid-April, and the province's most senior cleric was killed by a suicide bomber at a memorial service for Karzai's brother.
Such killings, many claimed by the Taliban, have sent chilling warnings to political leaders about the reach of the militants, who have shown an ability to adapt their tactics even as NATO-led troops have squeezed them in their traditional rural strongholds around Kandahar.
"There are some who believe that this is all they can do ... given the challenges the Taliban have faced over the course of the last couple of seasons," Mullen said on what could be his last trip to Afghanistan before stepping down as Pentagon chief at the end of September.
U.S. DRAWDOWN UNDERWAY
The increase in violence comes as the United States starts drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, with some 10,000 U.S. troops due to pull out by the end of the year. Another 23,000 will come home by the end of next summer, according to plans announced by U.S. President Barack Obama next month.
Mullen noted that even after those withdrawals, there will still be 68,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan and a growing number of Afghan security forces to help offset the U.S. drawdown.
Afghans are set to take lead security responsibility by the end of 2014, with foreign troops expected to stay on to provide training and support, but no longer in combat roles.
"I'm confident we will have the forces there necessary to reassure the Afghan people," Mullen said.
Suicide attackers killed at least 19 people, 12 of them children, when they targeted government buildings in Uruzgan province on Thursday, the deadliest assault in the south in nearly six months.
Last month, Taliban gunmen and suicide bombers attacked a leading hotel in the capital in a raid which killed 12 people.
Asked how he would reassure Afghans that the Taliban were not gaining the momentum in the nearly decade-old war, Mullen pointed to the "many, many successes we've enjoyed versus the Taliban over the course of the past year, reassure them that continues to be the case."
"And at the same time recognize that this is not completely surprising," he said.