NATO takes over Afghan south
By Jeremy Laurence
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A bomb in a police car killed at least eight Afghans on Monday as NATO forces took control of security in southern Afghanistan to begin one of the biggest ground operations in the alliance's history.
The blast occurred in the eastern city of Jalalabad, far from the transfer-of-command ceremony on a base outside the southern city of Kandahar.
Afghanistan is going through its bloodiest phase since a Taliban government was ousted in 2001, and the guerrilla insurgency is concentrated in the south and east.
Having handed over the south, the U.S.-led coalition is expected to transfer responsibility for the east to NATO at the end of the year.
The U.S. general in charge of the coalition told ambassadors and military leaders from 37 countries at a formal handover ceremony in Kandahar that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters could not defeat the combined Afghan and foreign forces.
"He knows he can't beat us militarily, so he is resorting more and more to terrorizing innocent Afghans in a deliberate attempt to instill fear in the people," said Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, commander of coalition forces.
Taking responsibility for the south, Lieutenant-General David Richards, the British NATO commander, spoke of forces "perpetuating a cycle of oppression, murder and poverty".
More than 1,700 people have been killed since the start of the year in attacks by Taliban guerrillas, drug gangs and U.S.-led coalition operations.
The bomb in Jalalabad targeted the convoy of Gul Afgha Sherzai, the governor of Nangarhar, as it drove away from a mosque where thousands of people had gathered to offer prayers for a former mujahideen commander, who died last week.
Sherzai escaped unhurt, but officials said five police and three children were killed while 16 other people were wounded.
"I was the target and it was the work of Afghanistan's enemies," Sherzai told Reuters, using a term usually taken to mean Taliban insurgents and their al Qaeda allies.
Basir Solangi, police chief of Jalalabad, told Reuters that the bomb was concealed in a police car and was triggered remotely.
Until now, NATO has been in charge of security in the capital, Kabul, and the safer north and west of the country, and the mission covering six southern provinces could become the most dangerous in the alliance's 57-year history.
"Hundreds of our suicide bombers are awaiting NATO forces ... we will continue our offensive until we force the foreign troops to leave our country," Mullah Dadullah, a Taliban commander, told Reuters by satellite phone from an undisclosed location.
NATO peacekeeping troops, mostly from Britain, Canada and the Netherlands, have been taking up positions in the south for the past few months and have already been engaged in heavy fighting with Taliban guerrillas, in some cases allied with drug runners.
The alliance will boost its presence in Afghanistan by about 7,000 troops to 16,000. Of more than 70 foreign troops killed this year, at least six of have been involved in NATO-led operations.
Richards told reporters at the desert camp near Kandahar airport that within three to five years NATO should see the job done in a "military sense", which would pave the way for development and reconstruction.
He said the upsurge in the violence was a desperate attempt by militants and drug warlords to derail the transition of power.
"If I were a Taliban commander I would see 37 of the richest and most influential nations in the world and I would say 'this year I have to succeed'," said Richards. "We were anticipating this and we won't let them." (Additional reporting by Noor Rahman and Saeed Ali Achakzai)