KABUL: A wave of Taliban violence culminating in the crash of a US helicopter probably hit by ground fire has brought Afghanistan to the verge of chaos and could compromise American operations in Iraq, analysts say.

Hopes were fading for 17 US personnel still missing after the Chinook came down on Tuesday in Kunar province, part of a swathe of southern and eastern Afghanistan where rebel attacks have reached levels not seen since the regime fell in late 2001.

If the servicemen are confirmed dead, it would be the biggest toll for American forces from a single incident of enemy fire since they invaded the war-shattered country nearly four years ago.

Analysts said that if the United States could not defend its high-tech hardware against grassroots Taliban insurgents, questions would be raised about its ability to guarantee security ahead of landmark parliamentary polls in September.

“It is obvious the US military’s campaign to eliminate or weaken the Taliban has significantly failed,” said Riffat Hussain, an expert on Afghan affairs at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad.

With US forces already overstretched in Iraq, and Nato troops confined to the relatively peaceful north and west of Afghanistan, the 18,000-strong US-led coalition here cannot afford to write off the Taliban, he said.

“If it gets out of control in Afghanistan then the American ability to keep things under control in Iraq would also be compromised,” Hussain added.

Things looked much better a few months ago, after US-backed President Hamid Karzai was elected by a huge majority of Afghans in a poll that was relatively untroubled by Taliban attacks.

Afghan officials have said privately that the sharp surge in violence took them by surprise — particularly as the US military claimed a few months ago to have broken the back of the Taliban.

Now, though, the figures speak for themselves.

In the past month at least five US soldiers and 187 other people, mostly militants, have been killed in series of bomb attacks, ambushes and clashes, compared with the 116 who died in such violence in June 2004.

June 2005 began with the deaths of 21 people in suicide bomb at mosque in southern Kandahar during the funeral of a cleric who was assassinated by the Taliban.

And it has continued in bloody fashion, with at least 77 militants killed in a pitched battles with Afghan and US forces in southern Afghanistan last week. Most of the rebels were blown apart by US air strikes.

Two Afghan election candidates and a man travelling with a UN electoral commission worker have also been killed in the south this month.

A further problem is that the Taliban can blend in with an increasingly bitter local population that has seen few of the benefits of reconstruction after 25 years of war, analysts said.

The rising violence has almost entirely halted rebuilding across devastated southern and eastern Afghanistan, with the UN halting its demining programmes there earlier this month after five workers were killed.

“Unbalanced reconstruction policies have prompted the people to turn their back on the government and slide towards the Taliban,” Habibullah Rafi, an Afghan political analyst and historian, told AFP.

With some of the public on their side, the recent Taliban offensive has been far bloodier than their usual summer skirmishes with Afghan and US forces.

“This time it is far more intense and well coordinated,” retired Pakistan army general Talat Masood told AFP.

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