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Afghans blame suicide bombs on foreigners

By GARETH HARDING, UPI Chief European Correspondent

BRUSSELS, March 14 (UPI) -- Only one of the recent suicide bombings in Afghanistan has been carried out by an Afghan national, Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told reporters Monday, confirming suspicions that the country is increasingly being targeted by foreign terrorist fighters.

Suicide bombings have risen sharply this year. In the first 10 weeks of 2006, there have been at least 13 such assaults, compared with 17 in 2005 and five in 2004. A suicide bombing killed two people in the capital Kabul Sunday after narrowly missing the leader of the upper house of parliament. The finger of blame has been pointed at al-Qaida and Taliban terrorists mimicking similar attacks against allied forces in Iraq.

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"The suicide bomber is a new phenomenon," said Wardak after meeting NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and other senior officials in Brussels. "We Afghans do not believe that committing suicide is a way to fight. It is such a cowardly action ... There is no local support for such action." The defense minister predicted the bombers would be defeated by better intelligence capabilities, more cooperation with locals and increased security on Afghanistan's porous borders.

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The Taliban regime was ousted from power by U.S.-led forces over four years ago after Kabul was accused of harboring al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. However, in the last year, the hardline Islamist force has regrouped and the insurgency in the south of the country has intensified, leaving over 1,500 dead since the start of 2005. Most of the victims have been Afghan soldiers and civilians, but American and European troops are also being targeted with increasing frequency. On Sunday, a roadside bomb killed four U.S. Marines on patrol in eastern Afghanistan. Last week, a Canadian peacekeeper was attacked with an ax while discussing reconstruction efforts with villagers.

Wardak admitted there had been a rise in violence, but denied the security situation in the country had worsened dramatically. "The enemy has lost the capability to counter our forces in the field, so they are more resorting to terror tactics and going against softer targets. As a result of that, it looks like there is a deterioration in the security situation, but I would say it is too early to reach that conclusion."

The defense minister based his upbeat assessment on the fact that the national army was becoming more professional and more foreign troops were on their way to the volatile south of the country.

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The 9,000-strong International Security Assistance Force, which is lead by NATO, will see its numbers jump to over 15,000 by the fall with the arrival of British, Dutch, Canadian and Australian troops in the south. Wardak said the number of soldiers would go up 10-15 times in some provinces. "With such a formidable force, the security situation will calm down considerably," he forecast.

Senior officials from ISAF countries have predicted that Western troops will continue to be present in Afghanistan for a very long time. But Wardak said the soldiers were only needed to help the country stand on its own feet and that within four to five years' time the Afghan army would be fully operational. "Once that is achieved I doubt that there will be a need for the deployment of large formations of international troops in Afghanistan."

American, British and French troops are busy training Afghan troops, many of whom who have decades of battlefield experience but little loyalty to the national government in Kabul. "Making an army is not an easy process," said Wardak. "But as far as fighting quality of Afghan army is concerned, we have received nothing but compliments and commendation (from our allies)."

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The defense minister admitted it would take time to make the army a professional and disciplined outfit but said: "The fighting capability is in our blood ... We have defended our country for 5,000 years against many big invasions and aggressions and we have survived."

Many analysts believe that drugs present an even greater threat to Afghan stability than warlords or insurgents. Recently released United Nations statistics show that Afghanistan's opium crop is likely to increase this year, helping to fund insurgents in the south and east. But Wardak said an ongoing operation by Afghan forces in the southern Helmand province had already destroyed "thousands of acres" of poppy fields without any major confrontation.

Ninety percent of the world's opium supply continues to come from Afghanistan, despite hundreds of millions of dollars of aid from the international community aimed at wiping out production of the drug.

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