KABUL, Afghanistan – Insurgents beheaded 17 people at a party in a Taliban-controlled area, and an Afghan soldier killed two U.S. troops, bringing the two-day death toll Monday to about 30.
Near-daily attacks by militants and increasingly frequent deadly violence against NATO troops by their Afghan allies highlight an embarrassing failure of Western policy: After nearly 12 years of military intervention, the country is not pacified. Once the United States and other countries pull out their troops, chaos seems almost certain to return and Taliban domination in large parts of the country is hardly implausible.
The beheadings occurred in southern Helmand, the same province where more than 100 insurgents attacked an Afghan army checkpoint and killed 10 soldiers.
Helmand was the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's surge, when he ordered 33,000 additional U.S troops to Afghanistan to help the military with a counterinsurgency plan. That plan hoped to turn the tide in Helmand and neighboring Kandahar and establish the governmental institutions that would allow the Afghan government to take control of the Taliban heartland.
Two years later, however, Helmand is still so lawless that Afghan government officials couldn't even go to the Taliban-controlled town where the beheadings were reported. Many Afghans in the south, the Taliban's birthplace and the home of the country's Pashtun speaking population, are leery of a government that many consider to be corrupt and ineffective.
The problem is compounded by a rapid reduction in American and international aid, which fueled most of the growth in the south in recent years. Afghanistan, one of the world's 10 poorest countries, has received nearly $60 billion in civilian aid since 2002. Now it stands to receive $16 billion, or about $4 billion a year, in the next four years. By comparison, the U.S. alone spent that much in 2010.
Analysts also say that a public worn down by a war that began just a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks no longer cares about Afghanistan, and that the war has slipped off the radar screens and is now considered by many to be over.
"The problem with this attitude is that Afghanistan — or whatever the crisis may be — has a life of its own. Men and women keep dying, and U.S. policies keep accelerating the centrifugal forces that are driving the country toward civil conflict, which may have profound implications for future regional and international security," said Sarah Chaynes, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a commentary published Sunday.
"Choosing to ignore problems is rarely a good way to solve them," said Chaynes, who spent nearly a decade in Afghanistan and served as an adviser to the U.S. military.
Most of the problems are likely to surface in Helmand and the south, where most of the surge troops will be removed as part of a drawdown that will reduce U.S. forces in Afghanistan from a peak of nearly 103,000 last year to about 68,000 in October. Other nations, including Britain, are also drawing down in the south, and nearly all foreign military forces are to leave the country by the end of 2014.
The forces are to be replaced by Afghan army and police units, but many have questioned the effectiveness of a force that has high desertion rates, is often poorly disciplined, and is supposed to reach a high of about 350,000 at the end of the year.
Another growing concern is the loyalty of the Afghan troops that the U.S. has spent more than $22 billion to train in recent years.
Insider attacks have been a problem for the U.S.-led military coalition for years, but they recently have become a crisis. There have been at least 33 such attacks so far this year, killing 42 coalition members, mostly Americans. Last year, there were 21 attacks, killing 35; and in 2010 there were 11 attacks with 20 deaths.
In the latest such attack, two American soldiers were killed in eastern Laghman province.
There were conflicting reports about whether the attack was intentional or accidental.
In Washington, a U.S. Defense Department official said the Afghan soldier fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the Americans, and that this seemed to indicate that it was an intentional act. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because an investigation is under way, said he was unaware of any indications that the shooting was accidental.
Noman Hatefi, a spokesman for the Afghan army corps in eastern Afghanistan, said a group of U.S. and Afghan soldiers came under an insurgent attack in Laghman province. He said the two Americans were killed when an Afghan soldier fell and accidentally discharged his weapon.
"He didn't do this intentionally. But then the commander of the (Afghan) unit started shouting at him, 'What did you do? You killed two NATO soldiers!' And so he threw down his weapon and started to run," Hatefi said.
The U.S. troops had already called in air support to help with the insurgent attack and the aircraft fired on the escaping soldier, killing him, Hatefi said.
The chief spokesman for NATO forces in the country said coalition forces were not pulling back from collaborating with the Afghans because of the attacks.
"We are not going to reduce the close relationship with our Afghan partners," Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz told reporters in the capital.
There were also conflicting reports about the other violence.
In the beheadings, a local government official initially said the victims were civilians at a celebration late Sunday involving music and dancing in Helmand's Musa Qala district. The official, Neyamatullah Khan, said the Taliban killed the partygoers for flouting the extreme brand of Islam embraced by the militants.
But a provincial government official said later that those killed were caught up in a fight between two Taliban commanders over two women, who were among the dead. Daoud Ahmadi, a spokesman for the provincial government, said shooting broke out during the fight. He said it was unclear whether the music and dancing triggered the violence and whether the dead were all civilians or possibly included some fighters.
Ahmadi said all of the bodies were decapitated, but it was not clear if they had been shot first.
The Taliban denied any responsibility for the attack, which was condemned by President Hamid Karzai, by the head of the U.S.-led NATO coalition, by the U.N. and by the European Union.
"No Talib have killed any civilians. Neither were Taliban commanders fighting each other. We don't know about this thing. Whether it happened or not, we were not involved," said Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi.
The Taliban have controlled large parts of Musa Qala, a district encompassing more than 100 villages, since 2001. They enforce the same strict interpretation of Islamic law that was imposed during Taliban rule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001.
U.S. Marines have battled the Taliban since they arrived in the region about two years ago. Although U.S. and foreign forces made significant gains in the south, insurgents still wield significant power in the area, and it is expected to increase as the Marines and other forces withdraw.
As a consequence, many Afghans and international observers have expressed concerns the Taliban will try to re-impose strict Islamic justice. Under the Taliban, all music and film was banned as un-Islamic, and women were barred from leaving their homes without a male relative as an escort.
Another sign that the Taliban may be returning in strength is the attack that killed 10 Afghan soldiers. The attack occurred late Sunday at a checkpoint in Helmand's Washir district, said provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi.
On Monday, a truck bomb in Kandahar, the south's largest city, killed two civilians and wounded the provincial police chief.
Kandahar provincial spokesman Jawed Faisal said the police chief, Gen. Abdul Raziq, was "slightly injured" but did not provide further details. He said the bomb appeared to have targeted Raziq, one of the most powerful men in Kandahar.
Faisal said 16 civilians were wounded in the blast.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt, Amir Shah, Rahim Faiez and Kay Johnson contributed from Kabul. Mirwais Khan reported from Kandahar, Afghanistan and Robert Burns from Washington.