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UN Says Afghan Insurgency Spreads, Attacks Rise Sharply

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) with Kai Eide in Kabul.
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -- The insurgency in Afghanistan has spread beyond Taliban strongholds in the south and east while the number of attacks in the country has reached a six-year high, a top UN envoy has said.

Violence in Afghanistan this year is worse than at any time since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the militant Islamist Taliban in 2001 and fears are growing among NATO members that they are losing both the military campaign and the support of ordinary Afghans.

"In July and August we witnessed the highest number of security incidents since 2002," UN special envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide told the UN Security Council. The rise over the same period in 2007 was nearly 40 percent, he said.

Eide said the insurgency has spread beyond the south and east and extended to provinces around Kabul. There has also been an increase in attacks on civilians, including aid-related and humanitarian personnel, he added.

However, Eide sharply criticized what he said were overly pessimistic assessments of the situation.

"I would really caution against the gloom-and-doom statements that we've seen recently," he said.

On the positive side, Eide said, relations between Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan have improved.

Afghan, U.S., NATO and UN officials say that Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants move across Afghanistan's long and porous border with Pakistan. This makes Islamabad a key partner if the war against the Afghan insurgency is to be won, they say.

U.S. Regrets Civilian Deaths

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad said Washington deeply regretted the loss of civilian lives.

"We do not take this lightly," he said. "I want to assure the council members that we will do everything in our power to ensure that [coalition forces] take every precaution to prevent civilian casualties."

Last week, the U.S. military said 33 Afghan civilians had been killed in a U.S. air raid in August, up from an original estimate of five to seven. The incident put a strain on U.S. relations with Kabul and the United Nations.

Eide told reporters that he welcomed U.S. assurances that "whatever can be done will be done" to avoid civilian deaths.

Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, said success in Afghanistan was possible but hinged on more than military objectives. He said Kabul must combat corruption, enforce the rule of law, achieve economic development, fight the narcotics trade, reform the police, and hold a general election in 2009.

Afghanistan's UN Ambassador Zahir Tanin acknowledged that the security situation has grown worse.

"The Taliban burn down schools, stamp out reconstruction, and butcher civilians," Tanin told the council. "Ordinary people are increasingly their targets."

However, he reiterated that his government was willing to speak with any Taliban elements willing to join the peace process, a position that has both U.S. and UN backing.

He also warned news organizations against excessive pessimism in their depictions of his country.

Tanin said the Taliban have used "some recent statements and reports" in an attempt to convince the Afghan population that international community's resolve is wavering.

British commander Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith told a British newspaper this month that the war against the Taliban could not be won. His comments were widely reported.