Afghan police guard the registration venue for presidential candidates… (S. Sabawoon / European Pressphoto…)
KABUL, Afghanistan —The Taliban claimed responsibility Sunday for a bombing in southern Afghanistan that killed four members of a NATO patrol, reportedly Americans, on the eve of the 12th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion.
Ahmad Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the governor of Kandahar province, said the deaths occurred when the international patrol was on foot as part of a joint operation with the Afghan army and a bomb detonated around 3 a.m. In line with its policy, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization didn't release the nationalities, but Faisal said they were Americans.
The Taliban issued a statement describing the attack in considerable detail. It said foreign troops were dropped by helicopter into the area around 2 a.m., at which point Taliban fighters detonated 10 improvised bombs. As NATO troops rushed to aid their wounded, two suicide bombers grabbed and detonated vests that had been stored in a nearby compound, the statement said.
The militant group, which frequently exaggerates its claims, said 30 people were killed or wounded. NATO evacuated them by helicopter and "body parts of the invaders are still scattered around the area," it said, adding that it recovered two assault rifles, a rocket launcher and three pairs of night-vision goggles.
Kandahar is the birthplace of the hard-line Islamist movement and is its traditional power base. The bombing took place in the province's Zhari district.
Homemade bombs and locally made land mines, which the military refers to as improvised explosive devices, are among the top killers of Afghan and foreign soldiers and civilians. The devices, along with the use of suicide bombers and insider attacks, epitomize the stubborn effectiveness of the Taliban and related militant groups using low-cost, low-tech weaponry often made of little more than ball bearings and fertilizer against some of the world's best-trained and most technologically proficient armies.
After a dozen years of war, Afghanistan's insurgency shows little sign of weakening, even as the public in the United States and allied countries would rather forget the drawn-out conflict.
Although Washington has vowed to continue training and supporting Afghan security forces, the lack of easily defined progress after more than a decade has fueled NATO's decision to withdraw all foreign combat troops by late 2014. That has led to a lower death count for foreigners in recent years as Afghans assume more responsibility for their nation's defense.
But it also has pushed up the death count among Afghan security forces — and among civilians, who have been killed in the crossfire or intentionally targeted as the insurgency turns on anyone it deems a supporter of the Afghan government, including local officials, police and pro-government tribal leaders.
According to the independent website iCasualties.org, 110 U.S. troops have died so far this year out of 140 foreign military deaths in Afghanistan, down from the peak year of 2010, when Americans accounted for 499 of the 711 foreign military deaths there. The site says a total of 3,389 foreign soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, 2,284 of them Americans.
The government in Kabul reports that more than 100 Afghan police officers and soldiers have died each week on average in 2013 as the insurgency redoubles its efforts to regain territory, especially in southern and eastern Afghanistan, during the pullback by foreign troops.
A United Nations report released in late July said Afghan civilian casualties were up 23% in the first half of 2013, placing most of the responsibility on militants' use of roadside bombings, armed assaults and suicide attacks in populated areas.
The war's 12th anniversary also marked the end of the registration period for candidates in April's presidential elections — the first independent vote organized by the country without direct foreign help — which could shape the direction of Afghanistan and its relations with other countries. By Sunday's deadline, nearly 20 hopefuls reportedly had submitted their names.
Among those running to succeed President Hamid Karzai are several political heavyweights, including a former defense minister, a former foreign minister, several former warlords, a few political outsiders and technocrats, and Karzai's brother.
Ethnic divisions, deep-seated rivalries, rapidly shifting alliances, corruption and patronage are prominent features of Afghanistan's political landscape. The population of 31 million is about 42% Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara and 9% Uzbek, with the remaining 13% from smaller groups. The Taliban, which has condemned the April 5 election and called on citizens to boycott the polls, is predominantly Pashtun.
NATO's troop level in Afghanistan has dropped quickly in recent months and is now below 100,000; about half of the troops are from the United States. The number of foreign troops is expected to fall to about 50,000 by February, of which about 31,000 would be Americans.
Special correspondent Baktash reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Magnier from New Delhi.