Six American soldiers were killed in a 48-hour period ending Sunday, their deaths coming on the heels of the most lethal month for U.S. and Western troops since the start of the war nearly eight years ago, military officials said.
Three other Western troops also died over the weekend, according to NATO's International Security Assistance Force. One was identified as a French soldier killed Saturday in a firefight outside Kabul, the capital; the others were Canadians killed in the south.
And the Associated Press reported that a bomb hit an Afghan police convoy in Herat today, killing 10 and wounding 20, including civilians.
The increase in combat casualties comes as NATO troops are engaged in a push to ensure that Afghanistan's presidential election can be held in reasonable safety. Voters will also choose provincial assemblies in the nationwide balloting scheduled for Aug. 20.
Western officials view the vote as a milestone in the effort to bolster the legitimacy of Afghanistan's central government, which has been weakened by a virulent insurgency and plagued by allegations of corruption and inefficiency.
Three of the U.S. deaths occurred in a roadside bombing in Kandahar province, in southern Afghanistan, on Saturday. Most of the American forces in the south are concentrated in neighboring Helmand province, where U.S. Marines have seized a large swath of previously insurgent-held territory. But many newly arriving American troops are also being deployed in Kandahar, where their tasks include dangerous patrols in Kandahar city, the main urban hub of the country's volatile south.
The other three Americans were killed Sunday in Wardak province, to the west of Kabul. U.S. military officials said their convoy struck a roadside bomb, then came under small-arms fire from insurgents.
Such coordinated attacks -- combining an initial explosion and a follow-up ambush -- have become a hallmark of the insurgents operating in the country's eastern sector. Many are said to be under the command of insurgent leaders based in Pakistan's tribal belt, including Sirajuddin Haqqani of the Haqqani network.
The American presence in Wardak was beefed up early this year after a series of attacks by militants helped create the impression that Taliban fighters were tightening a noose around the capital. Western military officials said that was largely an illusion and that Kabul was in no danger of being overrun, but they acknowledged that travel on the main highway through Wardak, at the capital's doorstep, had become extremely unsafe.
The surge in troop deaths over the weekend came just after military officials reported that July had been the worst month for fatalities since the war's start. Seventy-four Western soldiers were killed last month, including 43 Americans, the highest monthly tally for both since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban.