Insurgent violence in Afghanistan could reach record levels this year as militants increasingly target police and development projects, a top U.S. general said Thursday.
Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, who commands U.S. forces in the country, said violence is increasing as insurgents pour into Afghanistan from neighboring Pakistan.
Violence "may well reach a higher level than it did in 2007," the bloodiest since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001, Schloesser said.
More than 8,000 people, mostly militants, were killed in insurgency-related violence last year, according to the United Nations.
Militants afraid to attack coalition forces are instead directing violence against civilians, police and security forces protecting development projects, he said.
"They are going for what is an easier target," said Schloesser, who heads the 101st Airborne Division. He took up his command in Afghanistan on April 10.
More than 900 policemen were killed last year. More vulnerable than the better-trained and equipped national army, police have made up the majority of at least 159 security forces killed this year — with at least 72 police officers killed in April alone, according to an Associated Press tally.
The high death toll comes despite some $4 billion spent by the United States to train and equip police in the last three years.
Afghan officials said Thursday that 17 security personnel were arrested for drug offenses in the past year, including an army officer who tried to smuggle hundreds of pounds of hashish and opium in a military vehicle.
Schloesser also echoed warnings by U.S. officials that Pakistan's tribal areas are a breeding ground for Taliban, al-Qaida and other militant groups despite the presence of 100,000 Pakistani troops.
U.S. officials have sought permission to strike insurgent strongholds in the lawless and mountainous region.
A Pakistani official said the government is seeking a peace deal with the tribe of a Taliban commander suspected in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, part of a strategy of attempting to counter surging Islamic militancy with dialogue and development.
Zahid Khan, a senior official in one of the parties of the ruling coalition, said government envoys were in talks with elders of the Mahsud tribe in South Waziristan. The tribe includes Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan's top Taliban leader who is accused of ties to al-Qaida.