Ten NATO soldiers, including seven Americans, were killed in separate attacks on the deadliest day of the year for foreign forces in Afghanistan. A U.S. civilian contractor who trains Afghan police also died in a brazen suicide assault.
The bloodshed Monday comes as insurgents step up bombings and other attacks ahead of a major NATO operation in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar that Washington hopes will turn the tide of the nearly nine-year war.
Half the NATO deaths - five Americans - occurred in a single blast in eastern Afghanistan, U.S. spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said without giving further details. It was a grim reminder the insurgents can strike throughout the country - not simply in the south, which has become the main focus of the U.S. campaign.
Two other U.S. troops were killed in separate attacks in the south - one in a bombing and the other by small arms fire.
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NATO said three other service members were killed in attacks in the east and south but gave no further details. The French government announced one of the victims was a sergeant in the French Foreign Legion killed by a rocket in Kapisa province northeast of Kabul. Three other Legionnaires were wounded.
The American police trainer and a Nepalese security guard were killed when a team of three suicide bombers attacked the main gates of the police training center in the southern city of Kandahar, U.S. officials said.
Afghan officials said one bomber blew a hole in the outer wall, enabling the two others to rush inside, where they were killed in a gunbattle. Afghan officials said three police were wounded.
It was the deadliest day for NATO since Oct. 26, when 11 American troops were killed, including seven who died in a helicopter crash in eastern Afghanistan. The crash was not believed a result of hostile fire.
U.S. commanders have warned of more casualties as the alliance gears up for a major operation to secure Kandahar, the former headquarters of the Taliban and the biggest city in the south with a half million people.
Last December, President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan to try to stem the rise of the Taliban, who have bounced back since they were ousted from power in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Obama has shifted the focus of the U.S. campaign against Islamist terror to Afghanistan from Iraq, where the U.S. is expected to draw down to 50,000 troops by the fall.
As fighting escalates, the Afghan government is reaching out to the insurgents in hopes of ending the war.
The violence came as President Hamid Karzai's spokesman defended his decision to .
The Sunday dismissals drew fire from some political figures linked to the alliance that helped the U.S. oust the Taliban in 2001 and who fear the shake-up will play into the hands of the insurgents at a critical point in the war.
Last week, President Hamid Karzai won endorsement from a national conference, or peace jirga, for his plan to offer economic and other incentives to the militants to lay down their arms, and to seek talks with the Taliban leadership. The leadership has so far publicly shunned the offer, and the U.S. is skeptical whether peace can succeed until the Taliban are weakened on the battlefield.
The Taliban have branded Karzai a U.S. puppet and say there will be no talks while foreign troops are in Afghanistan.
Ahmad Behzad, a parliamentarian and a close ally of former presidential candidate Dr Abdullah Abdullah, tells CBS News' Fazul Rahim the ouster of Saleh - an ethnic Tajik who fought the Taliban as a senior figure in the Northern Aalliance - was a move by Karzai to pave the way for serious negotiations with the mostly-Pashtun Taliban.
Saleh has been regarded by Karzai and his close confidants, Atmar among them, as an obstacle to the peace overtures to the Taliban, according to Behzad and other political insiders.
Saleh's often-anti-Pakistani views also made it harder for the Afghan leaders to forge ahead with their secretive courting of the Taliban. It is thought that his removal will help garner Pakistan's help in the process, as Pakistan still has significant influence over some Taliban leaders.
Behzad said he did not believe Karzai wanted to remove Atmar, an ethnic Pashtun, from the Ministry of Interior because, unlike Saleh, he did not have strong opposition to some degree of reconciliation with the Taliban, but he had to be sacrificed to counter any possible political pressure and demonstrate Karzai's power.
Just a day after the removal of the two top security officials, Karzai issued a decree designating a high level commission to review the cases of all detainees in Afghan jails, and release those who remain detained without conviction or who may have been detained on false reports. It was seen as a goodwill gesture to encourage Taliban leaders to join his proposed peace deal.