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Afghanistan deadlier than Iraq

With the Taliban bolstered by a prison break that freed 886, 45 international troops died in June; in Iraq, 31 died.

KABUL, Afghanistan - Militants killed more U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan than in Iraq last month, as they did in May.

The grim milestone capped a run of headline-grabbing insurgent attacks that analysts say underscore the Taliban's growing strength. The extremist militia in June staged a sophisticated jailbreak that freed 886 prisoners, then briefly infiltrated a strategic valley outside the city of Kandahar.

Last week, a Pentagon report forecast that the Taliban would maintain or increase its pace of attacks, which is already up 40 percent this year from 2007 in the area along the Pakistan border where U.S. troops operate.

Last month also saw the international community meet in Paris to pledge $21 billion in aid to Afghanistan, but Barnett Rubin, an expert on that country at New York University, warns that there is still no strategy to turn that commitment into success.

While the two-month casualty trend is in part due to falling violence in Iraq, it also reflects rising violence in Afghanistan.

At least 45 international soldiers - including 27 Americans and 13 Britons - died in Afghanistan last month, the deadliest month since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, according to an AP count.

In Iraq, at least 31 international soldiers died in June: 29 Americans and one each from the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan. There are 144,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 4,000 British forces, along with small contingents from other nations.

The 40-nation international coalition is much broader in Afghanistan, where only about half of the 65,000 international troops are American.

Taliban attacks are becoming increasingly complex, and in June, increasingly deadly.

A gun and bomb attack last week in Ghazni province blasted a U.S. humvee into smoldering ruins, killing three U.S. soldiers and an Afghan interpreter. It was the fourth attack of the month against international troops in each of which four people were killed. No single attack had killed more than three international troops since August 2007.

"Insurgents now are more active, more organized, and the political environment, whether in Pakistan or Afghanistan, favors insurgent activities," said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center.

U.S. commanders have blamed Pakistani efforts to negotiate peace deals for the spike in cross-border attacks, though an initial deal with militants has begun to fray.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told visiting senior State Department official Richard Boucher his government was negotiating only with groups willing to lay down weapons, according to a statement from Gilani's office.

The two met as Pakistan's paramilitary Frontier Corps continued an offensive in the border region where extremists threaten the city of Peshawar.

For a moment in mid-June, Afghanistan's future shimmered brightly. World leaders gathered in Paris to pledge $21 billion in aid, and Afghan officials unveiled a development strategy that envisions peace by 2020.

But the very next day, the massive and flawlessly executed assault on the prison in Kandahar - the Taliban's spiritual home - drew grudging respect even from Western officials.

U.S. Ambassador William Wood saw some good news in the episode.

In an interview, he said the scramble after the jailbreak to push the Taliban back from the nearby Arghandab Valley was a big plus.

"Although Arghandab got major press for being a Taliban attack," Wood said, "the real news in Arghandab was that the Afghans themselves led the counterattack, deployed very rapidly, and chased the Taliban away."