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5 NATO troops die, Afghan official assassinated as violence rises in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Five NATO troops including one American died Tuesday, continuing a grim trend that could make June among the deadliest months of the nearly 9-year-old Afghan war.

Five Afghan policemen and a district governor were also killed Tuesday in separate fighting across the country, which has seen an uptick in attacks by insurgents in response to increased offensives by the international coalition.

U.S. officials insisted the Afghan campaign is on track, although they concede that pacifying the insurgent-riddled south will take longer than expected.

Three of the NATO deaths were British — two killed in separate gunfights in southern Helmand province and a third who died in a British hospital from injuries suffered in a firefight Sunday in Helmand, according to the British government.

The American service member was killed in a gunbattle in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. officials said, and a Polish soldier died in a rocket attack on a base in the eastern province of Ghazni, the Polish military said.

That brought the death toll for the month among the international forces to 44, including 27 Americans.

The NATO-led force suffered a record 75 deaths in July 2009 as U.S. and British troops launched major operations in the Taliban's southern strongholds. The deadliest month for U.S. troops was last October when 59 Americans died, including seven soldiers killed in a single clash near Kandahar and seven who died in a helicopter crash in northwest Afghanistan not caused by hostile fire.

President Barack Obama ramped up the war last December when he ordered 30,000 reinforcements to Afghanistan to turn back the resurgent Taliban. The focus of the accelerated operations has been in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace and the key to controlling the ethnic Pashtun south.

The Taliban have responded with their own offensive, stepping up attacks on coalition forces and Afghans who cooperate with the government of President Hamid Karzai.

On Tuesday, a remote-controlled bomb killed the chief of the Kandahar district of Arghandab, Abdul Jabar Murghani, as he was traveling home. His son and bodyguard were also killed, police said. Arghandab was the site of a suicide bombing against a wedding party last week that killed 56 people, many from families with members in the police and anti-Taliban village militia.

Karzai, who has been making peace overtures to the Taliban, condemned Tuesday's bombing as a "conspiracy of strangers and enemies of the Afghan people."

Also Tuesday, militants attacked a police checkpoint in eastern Ghazni province before dawn, killing five policemen and wounding one, according to the deputy provincial police chief, Nawroz Ali Nawroz.

Despite the rising bloodshed, U.S. officials claim that their counterinsurgency strategy is weakening the Taliban — even in their southern strongholds.

"We are beginning to regain the initiative, and the insurgency is beginning to lose momentum," the undersecretary of defense for policy, Michele Flournoy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

She noted that Taliban attacks in the south had disrupted efforts to bolster local governments.

Flournoy said the percentage of complex attacks had dropped since its peak in February and the average number of casualties per attack was below last year's levels.

"The nature of recent insurgent attacks is beginning to indicate a possible reduction in some of their operational capacity," she said.

Local Afghans have also shown an increased willingness to report bombs and weapons caches, which she said "suggests growing pockets of confidence among ordinary people and a willingness to support international and Afghan efforts to establish security and governance."

Still, rising death tolls and uncertain progress in defeating the Taliban have deepened concern in Washington and other coalition capitals about the increasingly unpopular war.

The Dutch plan to pull their 1,600 troops from Afghanistan by August, and Canada, with about 2,800 soldiers, plans to end its combat role here next year.

"As I gauge the progress of any war effort, I look at the broader trend lines. And it is for this reason that I am deeply concerned about our campaign in Afghanistan," Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday. "Many of the key trends seem to be heading in a bad direction, perhaps even signaling a mounting crisis."

He cited delays in getting additional troops and the planned withdrawal of the Canadians and the Dutch as troubling signs.

U.S. commanders have also acknowledged that the southern campaign is proving more difficult than expected, especially around Kandahar City, the largest urban center in the south with about a half million people.

NATO had hoped to wrap up a campaign to bolster security in Kandahar city by the end of the summer. Now, commanders are saying the operation will run through the end of the year, in part because of public resistance to increased military activity.

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Associated Press Writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Amir Shah, Rahim Faiez, Deb Riechmann and Heidi Vogt in Kabul contributed to this report.