KABUL, Afghanistan – Insurgents struck Afghan security forces in Kabul and the north Sunday, killing 13 soldiers and policemen in attacks that show the Taliban's capability to strike far from their southern strongholds.
The attacks, both claimed by the Taliban, began at daybreak in the northern city of Kunduz, when four militants stormed an army recruitment center. At least two of the insurgents detonated suicide vests, and the remaining fighters battled security forces in a daylong firefight that left four Afghan army soldiers and four police dead, Kunduz deputy police chief Abdul Rahman Aqtash said.
The city, a major agricultural and marketing center that controls one of the main highways into neighboring Tajikistan, virtually shut down, with shops, the bazaar and administrative offices closing as the gunbattle raged, said Moeen Marastial, a parliament member from Kunduz.
The city was the last major urban center held by the Taliban in 2001, and militants began stepping up attacks there after NATO began using supply routes through former Soviet states bordering northern Afghanistan as alternatives to routes through Pakistan, where NATO convoys have come under frequent attack.
In Kabul, two insurgents strapped with explosives ambushed a bus carrying Afghan army officers to work during the morning rush hour on a main road into the city center, killing five and wounding nine, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammad Zahir Azimi.
It was the deadliest attack in the capital since May, when a suicide bombing against a NATO convoy killed 18 people, including six coalition troops — three American colonels and a Canadian colonel among them.
Much of the fiercest fighting in Afghanistan has been concentrated in the Taliban's traditional southern strongholds. An internal review of President Barack Obama's year-old war strategy unveiled Thursday noted progress against the Taliban in the south, where the U.S. deployed an additional 30,000 American troops this year.
But the Taliban have been showing their reach, increasing attacks in other parts of the country through the year. Residents say parts of the north are now under Taliban control, with Afghan security forces often confined to their compounds, especially at night.
Kunduz province — where German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited her country's troops on Saturday — has seen several major attacks this year, including the assassination of the provincial governor and a suicide attack against a house used by an American aid organization in July that killed four people.
"The future of Kunduz is very worrying," said Marastial, the parliamentarian from Kunduz, noting that territory even 2 miles (3 kilometers) outside of the city was unsafe. He said Uzbek and Chechen extremists were also active in the area and "are more dangerous than the Taliban because they are linked to al-Qaida."
Residents and officials say security is deteriorating in several parts of the north.
"The situation compared to last year gets worst day by day ... the Taliban gets stronger," said Nasrullah Rahmani, a businessman in Maymana, the capital of Faryab province. He noted that with widespread poverty and a lack of jobs for young men, the Taliban had a fertile recruiting ground.
"Last year people traveled by bus during the night. This year nobody does. During the day security forces patrol the districts, but at night the security forces never leave their compounds," Rahmani said by telephone. "They are afraid of Taliban ambushes."
The ability of the Afghan army and police to hold their own against the Taliban is crucial to the international coalition's exit strategy from Afghanistan, with local security forces expected to take the lead by the end of 2014. But the army and police are often seen as corrupt and many units suffer high rates of attrition.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said Sunday the start of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, planned for mid-2011, would be more than a token reduction and that the U.S. was "going to be totally out of there, come hell or high water, by 2014."
He said al-Qaida's strength "has been significantly degraded" as U.S. forces have gone after the network's leadership, but there has been less success in countering the Afghan insurgency, dealing with the safe havens in Pakistan and creating a stable Afghan government.
"We're making progress on all fronts, more in some areas than in others," Biden told NBC's "Meet the Press" in an interview broadcast Sunday. "Are we making sufficient progress fast enough? The answer remains to be seen."
This year has become the deadliest for international troops in the nearly 10-year war in Afghanistan, with the death of a NATO service member Sunday bringing the total number of foreign troops killed in the country in 2010 to 690, according to an Associated Press count. Previously, the worst year of war was 2009, with 502 foreign troops killed.
Some other news organizations count deaths suffered by service members assigned elsewhere as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, making their totals slightly higher.