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17 aboard downed copter feared dead

Insurgency seen widening anti-US efforts in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- All 17 special forces members on board a US helicopter that crashed Tuesday in rugged terrain near the Pakistani border are feared dead, the military said yesterday, in the latest indication that insurgents are widening their fight against US-led forces in Afghanistan.

Bad weather and continuing rebel resistance hampered attempts to reach the crash site in Kunar province. The MH-47 helicopter, whose passengers included Navy Seal commandos, was struck by enemy fire during a mission to ferry reinforcements to an operation hunting for suspected guerrilla fighters in eastern Afghanistan, the military said. If confirmed, the deaths would be the highest US death toll from a single combat incident since the conflict began in October 2001.

The crash was part of a series of clashes and attacks in Afghanistan in recent months that some analysts believe points to an escalation in the attempt by former members of the fallen Taliban regime and their Al Qaeda allies to destabilize the country and undermine the US-backed Afghan government.

For three months, US-led forces have been fighting a conventional battle against guerrillas in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, leaving more than 400 rebels dead and claiming 29 American lives. At the same time, insurgents have staged a number of attacks against civilian targets, often in Afghan cities.

Among those recent attacks, gunmen fatally shot a policeman as he bought his lunch in a local bazaar, and rebels overran a clinic in southeastern Afghanistan and murdered seven medical workers.

The two-pronged guerrilla offensive appears aimed, in part, at disrupting the country's first parliamentary elections in mid-September, which the Afghan government is portraying as a major step toward democracy.

Afghan and US officials have portrayed the Taliban as weakening, fractured, and diminished by a US-backed political reconciliation process and increasingly squeezed out of traditional strongholds. General David Barno, former head of the US military in Afghanistan, predicted in April that most of the organization would collapse in the coming ''year or so," leaving behind a ''small hard-core remnant . . . which is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of Al Qaeda."

At the same time, Afghan and US officials have warned Afghans to expect a rise in attacks as the elections approach, and some independent military analysts disagree that the Taliban is fading.

''The Taliban are very active. I would never say they were waning," Nick Downie, a former British soldier who until this month ran a security advisory service based in Kabul, said in an interview before the helicopter crash. ''If anything, they're more active or about the same as the past two years."

Afghan and US officials, and security specialists, say the Taliban no longer has the ranks or resources to launch frontal attacks on progovernment forces, which include an Afghan national army of 24,000 and a US-led coalition force of about 18,000.

''When [the insurgents] meet [the coalition] force on force, they lose," Colonel James Denny, commander of about 1,100 British forces stationed in Afghanistan, said in a recent interview.

Colonel James Yonts, the US military spokesman in Afghanistan, said earlier this week that 77 insurgents had been killed in an intense battle last week in the mountains straddling the provincial borders of Kandahar and Zabul near Deh Chopan. One Afghan policeman was killed in the operation, while six US soldiers and three Afghan policemen were wounded, he said.

Yonts offered no estimate of how many militants had been involved in the fight, but it marked one of the most bloody battles with Taliban loyalists. The Afghan government put the death toll among insurgents at 178, with 12 government forces killed.

Denny said the Taliban was ''operationally and strategically" defeated.

''You've got disparate groups that are following the general strategic objective, which is: 'Go out and disrupt,' " Denny said of the Taliban.

Unable to take on the coalition and the Afghan Army directly, insurgents have shifted to hit-and-run attacks on soft targets, including progovernment clerics, civilians, organizers of the parliamentary election, and local officials.

US military officials said they have observed a rise in the number of attacks on military convoys using crude roadside bombs, including an attack in Khost province that killed two American soldiers. Such ''improvised explosive devices" are a popular weapon of insurgents in Iraq.

Some Afghan officials believe elements of the Taliban are working with Al Qaeda to bring the kind of terrorist attacks seen in Iraq -- including suicide bombings -- to Afghanistan. General Mohammad Daud, deputy minister of interior, said in an interview that Afghan intelligence sources had indicated Al Qaeda operatives were behind the June 1 bombing of a mosque in Kandahar that killed at least 20 people.

''They are under pressure in Iraq, and they wanted to draw US attention here," he said, referring to comments allegedly made by an Al Qaeda operative based in Pakistan.

Military officials concede that while the attacks may lack coordination, they are effective.

The US military hopes to hand over responsibility for part of its activities in southwestern Afghanistan to NATO troops early next year. The government and US military have intensified the Afghan Army training program and aim to expand the army to 70,000 by 2007.

Material from wire services was included in this report.

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