KABUL, Afghanistan — Militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan in June than in Iraq for the second straight month, a grim milestone capping a run of headline-grabbing insurgent attacks that analysts say underscore the Taliban's growing strength.
The fundamentalist militia in June staged a sophisticated jailbreak that freed 886 prisoners, then briefly infiltrated a strategic valley outside Kandahar. Last week, a Pentagon report forecast the Taliban would maintain or increase its pace of attacks, which are up 40 percent this year from 2007 where U.S. troops operate along the Pakistan border.
Some observers say the insurgency has gained dangerous momentum. And while June also saw the international community meet in Paris to pledge $21-billion in aid, an Afghanistan expert at New York University warns that there is still no strategy to turn that commitment into success.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted that more international troops died in Afghanistan than in Iraq in May, the first time that had happened. While that is in part due to falling violence in Iraq, it also reflects rising violence in Afghanistan.
Taliban attacks are becoming increasingly complex, and in June, increasingly deadly.
U.S. commanders have blamed Pakistani efforts to negotiate peace deals for the spike in cross-border attacks, though an initial deal with militants has begun to fray and security forces recently launched a limited crackdown in the semiautonomous tribal belt where the Taliban and al-Qaida operate with increasing freedom.
For a moment in mid June, Afghanistan's future shimmered brightly. World leaders gathered in Paris to pledge more than $21-billion in aid, and Afghan officials unveiled a development strategy that envisions peace by 2020.
But the next day, the massive and flawlessly executed assault on the prison in Kandahar — the Taliban's spiritual home — drew grudging respect even from Western officials.
U.S. Ambassador William Wood said that violence is up because Taliban fighters are increasingly using terrorist tactics that cause higher tolls but that there's no indication fighters can hold territory. He said June had some very good news and a couple of cases of bad news.
"The very good news was Paris. There were more nations represented, contributing more than ever before," Wood said.
The scramble after the jailbreak to push the Taliban back from the nearby Arghandab valley was the other big plus, Wood said. The Afghan army sent more than 1,000 troops to Kandahar in two days.
The worst news, Wood said, was the prison break and the possible involvement of al-Qaida.
Contributing to the increased death toll is an increase in the sophistication of the attacks. U.S. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top commander of U.S. forces here, said in June that militant attacks are becoming more complex — such as gunfire from multiple angles plus a roadside bomb. Insurgents are using more explosives, he said.
Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at NYU, said the Paris conference shows a strong commitment to Afghanistan, but he said there is still no strategy for long-term success.
"Let's focus on the essentials: creating a secure environment for Afghanistan and Pakistan to address their problems and for the international community to eliminate al-Qaida's safe haven," he said. "We haven't been getting there, and we are not getting closer, pledges or no pledges."