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Number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan doubles in 2009

American military fatalities in Afghanistan doubled in 2009 compared with the previous year, and U.S. officials and analysts acknowledge that the new year is likely to prove even more lethal.

The planned U.S. troop buildup and ever-deadlier tactics adopted by the Taliban and other insurgent groups are expected to result in at least a temporary surge in deaths and injuries among American troops. Nearly 70,000 are currently serving here and an additional 30,000 are to arrive in this year.

Heading into a ninth year of warfare in Afghanistan, military casualties settled into near-lock-step with the passing of each day -- a firefight here, a suicide bombing there. The most violent parts of the country -- the south, the east -- remained so, but some previously quiet corners also descended into carnage.

In 2008, 155 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan. As 2009 drew to a close, the year’s tally stood at 318, according to icasualties.org, an independent website that tracks troop fatalities in Afghanistan and Iraq. That tally did not include seven CIA personnel who were killed in an audacious insurgent strike Wednesday on their base in eastern Afghanistan.

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U.S. military officials point to an array of interlocking factors behind the insurgency’s growing strength and widely perceived momentum. These include widespread disaffection with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who in November took office for a second term after a fraud-tainted election.

Even among Western diplomats and military officials, it has become a bitter truth that Afghan anger over government corruption and inefficiency directly benefits the Taliban, swelling the ranks of recruits and fostering the notion that the militants might be capable of providing better governance.

But perhaps the strongest force driving the Taliban’s ability to inflict mounting casualties on Western armies has been its use of crude but powerful roadside bombs. Most have been made of ammonium nitrate -- fertilizer bombs, in essence, but of a size unseen before 2009, and now commonly ranging up to 1,000 pounds, big enough to flip a heavy armored vehicle like a toy. And the planting of such bombs has increased nearly a hundredfold since 2003, according to Western military officials, from 81 incidents that year to about 7,000 in 2009.

Over the last year, these low-tech devices have proved to be “the surface-to-air missile of this war,” as a senior intelligence official recently put it. That’s a rueful reference to the weapon that helped a ragtag mujahedin army drive the Soviet military out of Afghanistan in 1989.

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About three-quarters of the deaths and injuries suffered by U.S. and allied forces are now attributed to roadside bombs, and the fatalities often come in devastating multiples, sapping the public morale of nations contributing to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force.

One such incident came Wednesday, outside the restive southern city of Kandahar, when four Canadian soldiers and a Canadian journalist were killed by an enormous bomb. It wrecked the armored vehicle they were riding in. It was Canada’s worst single-incident loss of the year.

The identities of the slain troops were not immediately released, but the death of 34-year-old Calgary Herald reporter Michelle Lang, who was on her first assignment in Afghanistan, shocked and saddened her compatriots. She was the first Canadian journalist to die covering the war, which is front-page news every day in Canada -- much as in Britain, the United States’ main ally in the NATO force.

The two U.S. allies have suffered the highest casualties of the war among allied forces, after the United States, which has lost a total of 948 troops since 2001, icasualties.org reports. Britain has lost 244 troops, with the 2009 toll of 107 more than double the number lost in 2008. Canada has lost 138 troops in the conflict.

Together with the Americans, British and Canadian troops are doing the war’s hardest, dirtiest and deadliest fighting, in Afghanistan’s south. Amid surging fatalities in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, signs grew in 2009 that public resolve on the part of these two crucial allies was wavering.

American military officials, though trying to avoid painting an overly gloomy picture, sounded somber warning notes as the year drew to an end. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, said the U.S. military was likely to absorb some heavy blows before the tide turned against the Taliban, something the Obama administration believes must happen in the coming year.

“I told our troops heading here to steel themselves for more combat and more casualties,” Mullen said during a visit to Afghanistan last month.

During the second half of 2009, the new American commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, sought to allay one of the main sources of tension with the Afghan government: Afghan civilian casualties. Although about two-thirds of the noncombatant deaths are caused by insurgents, according to United Nations figures, and although McChrystal has made the protection of civilian lives a centerpiece of his counterinsurgency strategy, the year ended on a sour note, with Karzai’s government accusing Western troops of seizing and killing eight schoolboys Sunday in a troubled district of the eastern province of Kunar.

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NATO forces sharply contested the government’s version of events in the deaths, saying they came in a clash with suspected insurgents. But they were dogged as always by the difficulty of “proving a negative,” as one senior military official said.

In the year’s waning hours, new allegations of civilian fatalities surfaced, this time in Kandahar province.

The year’s final day brought another reminder of the state of lawlessness that grips much of the country. French officials said Thursday that two French journalists were missing after traveling to Kapisa province, about a 40-minute drive northeast of Kabul, the capital. Two Afghans working with them were missing as well, and authorities voiced fears the four had been abducted, a lucrative criminal activity that has grown more common over the last year.

As for the Taliban movement, it surveyed the winding down of a bloody year with predictable satisfaction.

“The present situation is an obvious triumph,” said a Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, reached by telephone. “Every day, we will greet the Americans with the deaths of more of their soldiers. It is witness to God’s victory.”

laura.king@latimes.com


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