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In Afghan war, a fatal harbinger

As U.S. troops in Afghanistan suffered the largest one-day death toll in months Monday, military officials and experts warned Americans to brace for rising casualties as thousands of additional service members pour into the country to confront a resurgent Taliban.

So far this year, 95 American troops have died in Afghanistan, including seven on Monday, according to the independent website icasualties.org. At the current rate, 2009 would be the deadliest for the U.S. in more than seven years of fighting, surpassing the number killed last year, the military said.

Part of this is due to the Obama administration’s decision to scale back operations in Iraq to refocus on Afghanistan, and the military is in the process of sending 21,000 additional troops into the country. Officers insist that the new strategy will work -- and indeed is already showing signs of promise. But, they cautioned, the arrival of more troops means more fighting and more U.S. deaths, at least in the short term.

“It is what we expected,” said a military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the topic. “We anticipated that with forces going in, increased number of troops, increased engagement, you are going to have increased casualties.”

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U.S. allies are also seeing a jump in casualties: 76 coalition troops from countries other than the U.S. have been killed this year, according to icasualties.org, a pace that would also make 2009 the deadliest year of the conflict for other troop-contributing countries all told. Britain and Canada continue to suffer the highest number of deaths after the U.S.

The U.S. has seen an upswing in military casualties before. American deaths in Iraq spiked to 126 in May 2007, as the so-called surge moved toward its height. But soon after, violence in Iraq began to ease and U.S. deaths quickly went down, to 38 in October 2007 and 23 in December 2007.

It is impossible to know whether Afghanistan will follow a similar pattern or if the Taliban will prove a more resilient enemy, officials said. But for now, experts predict difficult months ahead.

“I expect a hard summer of fighting. I expect a hard year of fighting,” said John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security think tank and an expert on counterinsurgency operations. “But I believe that by 18 months from now we will see clear indications the Taliban is losing strength and the government of Afghanistan is gaining strength.”

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Monday’s American deaths -- two in the south, four in the north and one in the east -- reflected intensifying conflict in a large swath of the south, where a major U.S. offensive is underway. But they also signaled insurgents’ determination to push into areas that have been relatively quiet, such as Afghanistan’s northern tier, and to keep pressure on American forces in the east, which borders Pakistan’s volatile tribal areas.

The Taliban is more active and stronger than in years past and has embarked on a campaign to demonstrate strength even in the face of a U.S. troop buildup, military officials said.

“It is a combination of more targets for the bad guys and the U.S. going into areas that were Indian country,” said a Defense official.

The Defense Department has already sent thousands of troops into Afghanistan this spring and summer. The Army’s 4,000-strong 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, out of Ft. Lewis, Wash., is to arrive this month.

Those additional combat forces will press into still more previously uncontested areas, probably raising U.S. casualties to yet greater levels, according to Pentagon officials. The Pentagon, which at times disputes figures from icasualties.org, listed 73 U.S. deaths in Afghanistan as of Monday. The lower figure would also result in the deadliest year for the U.S. in seven years of fighting if the rate of deaths continues.

Afghan civilians again proved vulnerable to the rising violence Monday. Two were killed when a suicide bomber attacked the outer gate of the sprawling North Atlantic Treaty Organization base at Kandahar, the alliance’s main hub in the south. The area where the attacker struck was a gate widely used by Afghan workers entering the base, far from the main part of the military installation.

But the Defense official said that, overall, civilian casualties were down, a sign that the troop buildup was providing improved protection for the Afghan population.

“We are doing what we’re supposed to be doing,” the official said. “One of the reasons we are there is to protect the population, and one of the ways to do that is to go in and mix it up.”

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Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said the Taliban and other insurgents had engaged in less direct combat than was expected by the military but had increased its use of roadside bombs and other indirect weapons. In fact, at least six of the deaths Monday were caused by improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs, according to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

Nagl said Taliban fighters had learned that firefights with American forces typically end in the militants’ defeat, and had adopted means of attack used effectively by insurgents in Iraq, such as roadside bombs, rockets and mortars.

“War is Darwinian,” Nagl said. “Over time we expect the insurgents to become more capable, but we also expect the counterinsurgents to become more capable.”

The deaths of the four American troops in the north, in Kunduz province, when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, were unusual not only because the area suffers relatively few such attacks, but also because there are not many U.S. troops there. Most American military personnel are deployed in the south and east, both centers of insurgent activity.

The Americans who died had been training Afghan security forces, U.S. military officials said.

In the east, a U.S. soldier died of injuries sustained in a firefight with militants, an American military spokesman said. Eastern Afghanistan had been the scene two days earlier of a tightly coordinated insurgent attack on a remote base that killed two American troops. On Monday, a Taliban website claimed responsibility for the capture of a U.S. soldier who was reported missing June 30 in the east.

No details were released about the two Americans killed in southern Afghanistan, but it appeared that they were not part of a 4,000-strong U.S. Marine Corps force seeking to assert control in the lower Helmand River valley. The offensive, which began last week, is described as the largest American-staged assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.

Teresita Schaffer, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy assistant secretary of State for South Asia, said the push into the poppy-growing region of southern Afghanistan would lead to higher casualties.

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“The reason is not so much the troop increase but what they want to do and where they want to go,” she said. “They are focusing on the areas that are least governed and most insurgency-filled.”

As a centerpiece of the current offensive, the Marines, accompanied by about 600 Afghan troops, intend to set up small bases and hold the territory, while forging relationships with the local leadership, U.S. commanders have said.

In recent days, Marines have pushed as far south as the district of Khan Neshin, a longtime Taliban stronghold, the military said in a statement. It said government control had been restored in the district for the first time in several years.

Although higher casualties could over time erode public support for the war in Afghanistan, experts said that as long as the new strategy began to bear fruit, the American people would be likely to support the effort.

“If you start to see evidence that things are getting better, as opposed to worse,” Schaffer said, “then that will make it that much more realistic to expect the political support will remain.”

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laura.king@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com


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