KABUL (Reuters) - NATO’s new chief called Friday for additional reinforcements in Afghanistan, and the alliance announced the deaths of eight more U.S. and British troops as violence worsens in the eight-year-old war’s deadliest phase.
In neighboring Pakistan, officials said they believed that country’s Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, had been killed in a missile strike, a major coup in the fight against the militant movement which has roots in tribes on both sides of the border.
But an Afghan Taliban spokesman said Mehsud’s death would have no effect on its fight on the Afghan side of the frontier, because the organizations are not directly linked.
“The Taliban’s jihad against foreign forces in Afghanistan will not be affected if a Pakistani Taliban leader is killed on the other side of the (border),” Zabiullah Mujahid said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
“We feel sympathy for our brothers who fight for the same cause, but resistance against the Afghan government and its foreign allies will continue.”
The NATO chief’s open call for more troops was perhaps the clearest indication yet that a major escalation ordered this year by new U.S. President Barack Obama is far from over.
“Honestly speaking, I think we need more troops,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who took over as head of the transaTlantic alliance this month, said during his first visit to Kabul.
“I have seen progress in the south (of Afghanistan), not least thanks to the increase in the number of troops, so definitely the number matters,” he told Britain’s BBC radio.
There are now more than 100,000 Western troops in Afghanistan, including about 62,000 Americans — nearly double the U.S. strength at the start of the year as Obama has sent tens of thousands to turn the tide in a war that was not being won.
Four American troops were killed by a roadside bomb in an area to the west Thursday. Another U.S. soldier was killed by insurgent fire in the east of the country Friday.
Three British soldiers from the Parachute Regiment were killed Thursday when they were ambushed with a roadside bomb and gunfire in Helmand, the southern province where U.S. and British forces launched the war’s biggest operations last month.
The deaths brought the toll for the first week of August to 19 Western troops, on pace to match the previous month, the war’s deadliest by far for foreign forces, when 76 died.
More Western troops have died in Afghanistan since the beginning of March than in the entire period from 2001-2004.
Attacks already at their worst since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 have increased ahead of an August 20 presidential election, which the Taliban vow to disrupt.
The final weeks of electioneering have nonetheless been boisterous. Incumbent president Hamid Karzai staged a huge campaign rally in Kabul Friday, attended by thousands of followers. His leading rivals, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, staged smaller rallies in other parts of the city.
Under present plans, 6,000 more American troops are due to arrive by the end of this year. The commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal, is due to issue a review of the conflict in coming weeks.
Officials say his main report — postponed this week until after the election — will not contain explicit recommendations on troop strength, but a decision will be taken shortly afterwards on whether more are needed.
“In a few weeks’ time, our commanders in the field will provide us with an updated assessment of the situation and based on that we will take the necessary decisions,” Rasmussen said.
Violence across Afghanistan has hit its worst level since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, and has intensified since thousands of newly arrived U.S. Marines launched Operation Strike of the Sword to seize Taliban-held areas in Helmand before the vote.
Britain’s 9,000s-strong contingent has also launched a large, simultaneous offensive in another part of Helmand, Operation Panther’s Claw, facing heavy losses as troops seize territory north of the provincial capital Lashkar Gah.
Additional reporting by Luke Baker in LONDON; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani