KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Eight American troops were killed in a series of attacks in southern Afghanistan, officials said Wednesday as Taliban militants pushed back against an effort to secure the volatile region.
A suicide attacker slammed a car bomb into the gate of the headquarters of the elite Afghan National Civil Order Police late Tuesday in Kandahar, a NATO statement said. Minutes later, insurgents opened fire with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Three U.S. troops, an Afghan policeman and five civilians died in the attack, but NATO said the insurgents failed to enter the compound.
The special police unit, known as ANCOP, had only recently been dispatched to Kandahar to set up checkpoints along with international forces to try to secure the south's largest city, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.
The dead civilians included three Afghan translators and two security guards, Kandahar provincial police chief Sardar Mohammad Zazai said.
Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi telephoned reporters Wednesday to claim responsibility for the attack. The insurgents, which are prone to exaggerate death tolls inflicted on Afghan and international security forces, claimed 13 international troops and eight Afghan security forces died in the raid.
NATO and Afghan troops are fanning out elsewhere in Kandahar province to pressure insurgents in rural areas. The strategy is to improve security with more and better-trained police and troops so that capable governance can take root and development projects can move forward and win the loyalty of ordinary Afghans.
The Taliban have responded by ratcheting up suicide attacks and bombings, making last month the deadliest of the nearly 9-year-old war for international forces.
Army Brig. Gen. Ben Hodges, a top U.S. commander in southern Afghanistan, said Wednesday that the new Kandahar operation is still in its early stages and security will begin to improve in coming months as American and Afghan forces move into violent areas.
"It's a rising tide," he said. "And that tide is starting to come in now. We're going to start feeling those positive effects here as July turns into August."
Hodges said that in the contested district of Zhari, where the government has far less control than in Kandahar city, the timing of the beginning of combat operations will depend on when the Afghans are ready to take the lead in governing. American military forces could clear these areas quickly and decisively, he said, but doing so without establishing local governance and permanent security forces would have negative consequences.
"All that would accomplish is a lot of casualties, ours as well as Afghans," he said, "and we would create even more insurgents because we'd be leaving."
Experience in neighboring Helmand province has proved how difficult it can be to establish an effective government presence after clearing a militant stronghold.
Officials on Wednesday confirmed that the government representative in the troubled southern district of Marjah had been replaced, barely six months after a major NATO military offensive to retake the area from the Taliban.
Provincial spokesman Daoud Ahmadi said Haji Zahir has been replaced as district chief as part of a "reform procedure." He would not say if Zaher was removed because of continued instability in Marjah. The southern farming town — much like the current Kandahar push — was intended to be a showcase of good Afghan governance after combined Afghan and international forces expelled the Taliban, but authorities have struggled to consolidate their control.
Hodges, the American commander, said Zaher was ousted for refusing to take a qualification test required under Afghan law. He said he did not have details but suspected the test requirement was waived when Zaher was first recruited as district chief.
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On Wednesday, four more American troops were killed by a roadside bomb in the south, while one more U.S. service member died the same day of wounds from a gunbattle.
So far in July, 45 international troops have died in Afghanistan, 33 of them Americans. June saw more than 100 troops killed — the bloodiest month of the nine-year-old war.
Wednesday's deaths bring to 12 the number of foreign troops killed in the past 24 hours.
Another ISAF member died on Wednesday in a separate insurgent attack, NATO said.
In the most shocking incident, three members of the British Gurkha regiment were killed when an Afghan National Army soldier they were serving alongside turned on them with a machine-gun and rocket-propelled grenade before escaping.
NATO and Afghan troops increasingly fight side-by-side against the Taliban as the West tries to pass on more responsibility for security ahead of a gradual withdrawal starting next year.
Officials and politicians have stressed that the policy will continue, but complete trust in your fellow troops is the cornerstone of any fighting force, and Tuesday's incident involving British troops would have shaken that.
The rapid creation of a national army and police force since the Taliban's ousting and following decades of war has seen tens of thousands of Afghans join the security services, and there are fears insurgents may also have signed up.
In other attacks around the country, nine Afghan civilians died in the south when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in the volatile district of Marjah in Helmand province, the Ministry of Interior said. Another homemade bomb killed two security guards traveling on a road in eastern Paktika province.
Two suspected Taliban also died in Helmand's Lashkar Gar district when the roadside bomb they were trying to plant exploded prematurely, the ministry said.
In another development, Afghanistan's National Security Council has embraced the idea of setting up local defense forces in some parts of the nation.
President Hamid Karzai's office said Wednesday the new Local Police Force will operate under the authority of the Interior Ministry.
The force will operate separately from the Afghan National Police.
NATO Commander Gen. David Petraeus has argued in favor of local defense forces in some areas — essentially residents who defend their own locality.
Karzai has expressed reservations, fearing they would be like local militias that could undermine the central government and possibly fuel civil war.
The interior minister is to provide details of the proposal to the security council at its next meeting.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.