An Uphill Climb in Afghanistan

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In recent days, coalition forces in Afghanistan have not been shy about touting Operation Mountain Thrust, an 11,000 strong counter-insurgency offensive tasked with hunting down Taliban extremists in the volatile south. But a bombing attack in Kandahar on Thursday highlights the difficult task coalition forces face in tracking an invisible enemy that is equally at ease wreaking havoc in secured cities as it is in spreading terror to remote villages

The remotely detonated bomb tore through a private passenger bus, killing eight, gravely wounding another 16 and altogether shattering the tentative calm that had come to rest upon the city since a coalition bombardment forced Taliban insurgents into retreat nearly a month ago. The bus was transporting Afghan laborers to their work at the nearby American military base, and was deliberately targeted by the Taliban, who continue to threaten Afghans employed by the government or foreign forces. "The people of Afghanistan had already been warned not to join and help the United States occupiers," Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif told TIME. "These men were American servants, and they were punished."

Thursday's bombing was only the latest incident in a wave of escalating violence that has seen nearly 500 deaths in the past two months, triggered, say many, by the pending deployment of NATO troops at the end of July. Reports of suicide bombings, battles, beheadings and school burnings have become commonplace, and are expected to worsen as NATO prepares to take military command of the region from American hands.

Operation Mountain Thrust, while set into planning long before the recent upswing in violence, anticipated such a test by insurgent forces, and was designed in part to clear the ground for the upcoming transfer of power. "The aim of Mountain Thrust is to reduce the threat to NATO in those first few weeks after which we take over," said Lt. General David Richards, who will be heading NATO command. "I am confident that it will achieve its aim and that it will enable us to take things forward in the way that we all want."

Composed of members of the Afghan National Army along with troops from the United States, the U.K. and Canada, the operation is the largest coalition offensive since the Taliban was defeated in 2001. "Operation Mountain Thrust is not just about capturing and killing extremists," said U.S. Spokesman Col. Tom Collins. "It is very much about establishing conditions so that government institutions and humanitarian groups can move into these areas and begin the real work that needs to be done."

But as the attack in Kandahar shows, bold pronouncements may just provide further incentive for anti-government forces to select soft targets in order to instill fear. "They said that Operation Mountain Lion would defeat us," says Hanif, referring to another ongoing counter-insurgency campaign in the eastern province of Kunar, "but it did not. We are still here. We will be the victors in Operation Mountain Thrust as well, god willing."

—With reporting from Muhib Habibi