KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A suicide bomber targeting U.S. troops outside an Afghan government office on Monday killed nine children walking home from school and two of the Americans, the latest sign that this year's fighting season could be one of the deadliest of the 12-year-old war.
An increase in casualties among Afghan civilians and security forces raises fears that foreign combat forces will be leaving behind a country in the throes of relentless violence when they withdraw next year.
An Afghan official insisted that despite their escalating carnage, the insurgents have made no advances.
With peace talks apparently dead in the water, the Taliban and other militants have fiercely stepped up attacks in recent weeks — with multiple bombings, sieges of international aid groups' compounds and armed attacks on police posts nationwide — testing the ability of Afghan soldiers and police to hold their ground by themselves.
"The level of violence this year is the highest it has been since the war started in 2001," said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, who conducted a detailed study of the first two months of the annual Taliban spring offensive. His analysis of attacks over two months puts the violence as on par with 2011, the deadliest year of the war up to now.
Afghan officials say the insurgents have won no new territory or advantage, beyond causing mayhem. But the death toll has soared. In the past two weeks alone, violence has killed 125 Afghan civilians and injured 287, a 24 percent increase in casualties from the same period last year, the United Nations' mission said.
Monday's civilian death toll reached 16 when a family in another eastern province drove their vehicle over a roadside bomb, killing all seven people inside.
The U.N. blamed militant attacks for 84 percent of the recent civilian casualties, saying that tactics like suicide attacks near schools and planting roadside bombs around the country may amount to war crimes.
The Afghan army and police are fighting the insurgency this year with little or no help from international troops. They are pulling out after fighting in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban for sheltering al-Qaida's terrorist leadership after the Sept. 11 attacks on American soil.
Apparently to test the Afghan forces mettle or to rattle a nervous populace, the insurgents have chosen to ratchet up attacks rather than join a halting peace-talk effort — or simply wait until after most international troops leave by the end of next year.
In the latest attacks, a bomber on a motorcycle detonated his explosives in the eastern province of Paktia, said Gen. Zelmia Oryakhail. The apparent target was a U.S. delegation, but children were the main victims.
A local school had just let pupils, between 10 and 16 years old, out for the day. Nine students were killed along with a local Afghan policeman, he said.
Many of the children's bodies were burned beyond recognition, he said.
A U.S. military delegation had just attended a security briefing at the district administrative office, said district chief Saleh Mohammad Ahsas, who was in the meeting. He said the bomber appeared to have been waiting for the delegation and struck as the Americans left the compound.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan said that two of its service members died in the explosion. A Defense Department official in Washington confirmed they were Americans. He could not be identified because he was not authorized to discuss the nationalities with reporters.
Seven more Afghan civilians were killed Monday in the eastern province of Laghman, where the provincial government said four women and two children had gone with a male driver into the hills to collect firewood. On their way back, their vehicle detonated a bomb, killing all seven.
Ruttig said the latest Taliban "spring offensive" differs from previous years in that the violence, which usually drops sharply during winter months, never really slowed. Since April's official launch of the offensive, militants have used a broad range of tactics, including suicide bombings, assassinations of key anti-Taliban figures and roadside bombs.
Militants also have attacked buildings used by two international aid groups — the International Committee of the Red Cross and the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration — raising concerns the insurgency now views humanitarian groups as fair game.
In the past two weeks, hundreds of Taliban fighters have attempted to take over more territory with attacks on police posts.
Interior Ministry spokesman Sediq Sediqi confirmed that Taliban have launched multiple assaults — assisted, he said, by al-Qaida and the Pakistan-based Haqqani terrorist network — but he insisted Afghan forces were holding their ground.
"The enemy was not able to get control of a single district, not even a police checkpoint," Sediqi said, noting that in the last week alone, security forces have killed 196 Taliban and arrested 117.
The escalation has also taken a toll on Afghan forces. At least 441 security forces have died in fighting or bombings in the first five months of this year, more than twice the number killed during the same period last year, according to statistics compiled by The Associated Press.
Even as the violence soars, there are tentative efforts to encourage negotiations.
The Taliban confirmed on Monday that it sent a delegation to Iran for three days of talks, signaling that Tehran could be seeking the role of regional mediator in attempts to end its neighbor's war.
Spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said that emissaries from the Taliban's political office met with Iranian officials over the weekend. It was an unprecedented development, since the Sunni Muslim Taliban have long been enemies of Iran's ruling Shiite clerics.
The Taliban have indicated in the past they are open to peace talks, but negotiations have always sputtered because the insurgents are unwilling to talk with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whom they deem a puppet of the U.S.
Associated Press writer Rahim Faiez contributed from Kabul.