KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- As NATO troops replace U.S. forces on southern Afghanistan's battlefields, insurgents are waging a suicide bombing campaign that appears aimed at shaking the alliance's public support in Europe and Canada.
The test of wills threatens to set back the U.S.-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan more than four years after the Taliban regime was toppled, American and Afghan analysts warn.
Suicide bombings were rare in Afghanistan until fall, when NATO began debating a move into southern Afghanistan.
The mission is expected to involve the first ground combat in NATO's 57-year history. Fighting determined Taliban and al-Qaida militants in rugged, often mountainous terrain would be a major step beyond NATO's previous attempts at peacekeeping or the alliance's 78-day air war against Serbia in 1999 to end atrocities in Kosovo.
The decision to take on the mission came only after considerable debate within the alliance, beginning formally in September. About the same time, insurgents launched a wave of suicide bombings. At least 22 suicide attackers have struck since then, more than double the combined total for the previous three years.
Several attacks have targeted Canadian, German, Italian, Portuguese and other NATO troops, whose main mission has been peacekeeping and building schools and hospitals, not fighting a counterinsurgency war. Although U.S. combat troops are set to hand over control to NATO forces in the south this spring, the alliance will depend on American attack helicopters and other aircraft for support.
Mir Akbar Ansari, a senior prosecutor in Afghanistan's anti-terrorism courts, believes that the suicide bombers are going after NATO troops now because their strategists see the allies as weak links in the foreign effort to stabilize Afghanistan.
"I think the rise of attacks in Afghanistan nowadays is aimed at the weak forces, such as Canada and others, and that is because these countries can easily be threatened," Ansari said.
"The terrorists want the Americans to be alone in Afghanistan, so that they can deal with them later. Al-Qaida doesn't want to leave its nest in Afghanistan."
Afghan officials say the bombers are overwhelmingly foreigners - mainly Arabs and Pakistanis who usually enter the country from neighboring Pakistan.
Pakistan insists that it is doing everything it can to prevent that. But in talks last week, Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, pressed Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, for a "more intensive pursuit of terrorists, wherever they may be."
"We have to fight them jointly, and we have to trust each other that we are fighting them jointly," Musharraf told reporters in Islamabad on Wednesday after his meeting with Karzai.
Relations between the two neighbors, both close U.S. allies, are under strain amid escalating violence against NATO forces in Afghanistan. Roughly two-thirds of the suicide attacks against NATO soldiers since their arrival in 2003 have occurred in the past six months as governments tried to rally public support for a dangerous mission, said Philip Gordon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
"It is impossible to get into the heads of the insurgents, but it sure looks like they've developed a conscious strategy of deterring those countries that are in the NATO mission," said Gordon. He was part of a team of experts who assessed the alliance's operations on a NATO-sponsored trip to Afghanistan in December.
That strategy threatens to undermine the battle against Taliban and allied al-Qaida fighters because some NATO governments are reluctant to get into a war with the insurgents, Gordon added.
"There is a risk that NATO troops being deployed won't be as willing to fight as the U.S. troops that were there," he said. "They go out of their way to avoid any kind of clashes, and that's not the mission in the south. It's going after terrorists."
Italian Lt. Col. Riccardo Cristoni, NATO's chief spokesman in Afghanistan, said the alliance has no evidence that insurgents are targeting non-U.S. troops in a new strategy but "cannot rule out any possibility."
"We know that these kinds of terrorist organizations are very keen on putting pressure on the [home] audience. We have seen this in the Iraq situation and during the Spanish election" in 2004, when al-Qaida-linked bombers killed 191 people on Madrid trains, he said.
Since a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001, U.S. and Afghan forces have led the counterterrorism war and lost the most troops in combat.
But the Bush administration wants to cut the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from about 19,000 to 16,000 by spring. Over the coming weeks, the NATO force will add about 7,000 troops, bringing it to roughly the same size as the U.S. contingent. Canadian, British, Dutch and Danish soldiers are setting up bases in Kandahar, Helmand and Uruzgan provinces, where insurgents and heroin barons are expected to put up fierce resistance.
Paul Watson writes for the Los Angeles Times.