WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Insurgent violence in Afghanistan has accelerated sharply alongside the arrival of new U.S. troops, reaching its highest level since 2001 just last week, U.S. officials have said.
Insurgent attacks soared 59 percent to 5,222 incidents from January through May, compared with 3,283 attacks in the first five months of 2008, according to U.S. military officials and excerpts of a report by NATO's International Security Assistance Force obtained by Reuters.
That is more than double the growth rate for violence in Afghanistan between the same months in 2007 and 2008, when military officials estimate insurgent attacks rose about 25 percent. All told, insurgent violence climbed 33 percent in 2008, they said.
"The past week was the highest level of security incidents in Afghanistan's history, at least that postliberation history," said Army General David Petraeus, who is responsible for military strategy in the Middle East and Central Asia as the head of U.S. Central Command.
U.S.-led forces toppled Afghanistan's former Taliban regime in 2001 after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, which U.S. officials say were planned from Al-Qaeda safe havens on Afghan territory.
"There are some tough months ahead. Some of this [violence] will go up because we are going to go after their sanctuaries and their safe havens as we must," Petraeus told a Washington forum in a presentation unrelated to the ISAF report.
Accelerating violence could pose political risks for President Barack Obama, as his administration pours thousands of fresh troops into Afghanistan as part of a larger strategy to thwart Taliban influence and stabilize the war-torn nation.
Petraeus, whose strategic thinking is widely credited with rescuing Iraq from the brink of open civil war in 2007, is overseeing the military segment of the Obama strategy.
The United States has already increased its military presence in Afghanistan to 56,000 troops, from about 32,000 in late 2008, and Petraeus said he expects to see a total 68,000 troops in the war zone by autumn.
Analysts have warned the counterinsurgency strategy could lead to sharply higher U.S. casualty rates, potentially diminishing support for the war at home as members of Congress head into midterm elections in 2010.
ISAF statistics show the number of insurgent attacks in May at 1,450 -- surpassing the 1,400-mark for only the second time since January 2007. Monthly attacks first topped 1,400 in August 2008. In May 2008, there were 944 insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The data include attacks on U.S. and NATO forces, as well as Afghan military, police, government, and civilian targets.
Mild Winter, Heightened Operations
Military officials blame the increase partly on a mild winter, which enabled Taliban and other insurgents to cross freely into Afghanistan from safe havens in Pakistan.
But rising violence was also driven by heightened NATO and Afghan military operations, which increased by about one-third from January through May, ISAF said.
The ISAF report showed a 78 percent jump in attacks from January through May in southern Afghanistan, where most of the additional U.S. troops are headed.
Attacks climbed 41 percent in eastern Afghanistan, which lies across the border from militant safe havens in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas.
ISAF said attacks were also 73 percent higher in western Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has been embroiled in a controversy over civilian deaths that occurred during U.S. air strikes in Farah Province in early May.
The report said direct-fire attacks rose 61 percent in the first five months of 2009, while attacks employing roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices rose 64 percent.