NATO fatalities that used to drop into the single digits in winter rose sharply this time as more troops poured in and the Taliban held its ground.

Afghanistan’s high mountains and harsh weather once meant that winter was a respite from much of the war’s violence, but as the deaths of six Western soldiers in three separate attacks on Monday show, this winter is proving to be different.

U.S. military leaders and Taliban commanders are vowing to carry the fight to each other and skip the traditional winter vacation, and there is every sign that they are doing just that.

Though the trend has been building, in past years, the Taliban generally slipped off to sanctuaries in Pakistan, or just stayed home, while NATO forces enjoyed a drop in attacks and a steep decline in the body count from December through March.

A combination of factors has changed that. U.S. troop levels nearly doubled in 2009, meaning more missions against the Taliban -- and more potential targets for them. Military crackdowns by Pakistan along the border have in some places made it harder for insurgents to flee there.

The Taliban has in any case consolidated its hold over large parts of southern Afghanistan and has less need to fall back than in previous years. Seeking to make a political point, the militants have also stepped up the frequency of their attacks and are now using methods like improvised explosive devices and suicide bomb attacks that are less affected by the weather.

Both sides seem determined to make a larger political point by continuing to fight through the snow season. As General Stanley McChrystal, the senior commander in Afghanistan, said in his report to President Barack Obama in August, the Americans need to show that “it is not a cyclical kinetic campaign based on a set ‘fighting season’; rather it is a continuous yearlong effort” to help the Afghan government win the support of people.

The Taliban hopes to undermine support for the war in western countries before more U.S. forces can arrive this year.

What happens in the winter “shouldn’t say much about the ability of the reinforcements, since most units won’t arrive until spring and summer,” said James Dobbins, an Afghan expert with the RAND Corp. “If the situation seems to be getting worse and worse, it may change public opinion even though it shouldn’t, especially in countries where the war is more unpopular.”

On Monday afternoon, three Americans were killed in a firefight in southern Afghanistan, according to a statement by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, which gave no further details.

A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, reached by telephone, claimed that the Americans had been killed in an ambush in the Shah Wali Kot district in Kandahar province by a single insurgent named Sardar Muhammad. Ahmadi said the insurgent hid along a path used by a U.S. foot patrol in the heavily mountainous area, and then fired on them with an AK-47 automatic rifle. He claimed that Muhammad killed five U.S. soldiers before the others returned fire and killed him.

The military also said that a member of the international forces was killed in southern Afghanistan by an improvised explosive device on Monday. And coalition forces reported that two service members were killed in eastern Afghanistan on Monday, without specifying nationalities.

Separately, the French government confirmed that at least one of its soldiers was killed and another badly wounded in what was apparently the same episode.

Rear Admiral Gregory J. Smith, a spokesman for the coalition forces, said winter had not slowed the war much this time.

Insurgent activity has stayed at the level it reached in September, when attacks spiked in response to new troop arrivals. “We don’t look at the winter as a time when our activity is less; we intend to keep the tempo up,” he said.

Admiral Smith said the increase in deaths among coalition forces was due to an increase in troop numbers and a resulting increase in contact with enemy forces. Overall coalition fatalities rose from 295 in 2008 to 520 in 2009, according to icasualties.org, an independent organisation that tracks military casualties.

Coalition forces are logging 500 violent encounters with insurgents every week, Admiral Smith said, an increase of 20 per cent over the same time in 2008.

“The difference is we have more forces operating in more places” where insurgents have long had sanctuaries, he said.

The Taliban commander in Kandahar province, Hafizullah Hafi, struck a similar note in a telephone interview. “We are staying in the winter,” he said. “We have more fighters than they do, and they should not think that we are weak and we will not retreat in the winter.”

General Shir Muhammad Zazai, the corps commander of the Afghan National Army in Kandahar, maintained that Taliban attacks had actually decreased against Afghan forces — though not against the Americans.

“This year, winter is the safest time for us,” said General Zazai. “It is calm. Incidents against Americans, though, are not calm. Against the Americans it is strange. It looks like the Taliban are staying to target the Americans and show that they are not weak and disappearing.”

The spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defence, General Zahir Azimi, said it only seemed as if the Taliban was more active this winter because the militants were relying much more on improvised explosive devices, known as IEDs, and other tactics, rather than on carrying out offensives as they had in previous years.

“Two years ago they changed their tactics; now they’re mostly resorting to roadside mines, IEDs, suicide attacks, guerrilla attacks like in Logar and the U.N. guest house,” said General Azimi.

He was referring to an attack by suicide bombers and gunmen on provincial headquarters in Logar province south of Kabul, which killed six Afghan officials in August, and a raid on a U.N. house in Kabul, which killed five of the organisation’s staff members on October 28.

“These sorts of attacks don’t require a certain time or a certain season,” he said. “The winter helps them for planting IEDs; they just have to plant explosives in the snow.”

Over the past year, more than 60 per cent of all fatalities of allied troops were from these explosive devices, compared with 42 per cent in 2007, according to data from icasualties.org.

According to the Brookings Institution’s Afghanistan Index, NATO fatalities dropped into the single digits in the winter, as did Afghan civilian casualties, in every year from 2001 to 2008.

Last December, though, American fatalities were six times as high as in the previous December, and coalition fatalities over all were up 29 per cent. — © 2010 The New York Times News Service

(Reporting was contributed by Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan; Sangar Rahimi from Kabul; employees of The New York Times from Jalalabad and Helmand province; and Nadim Audi from Paris.)

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