Reflecting a quickening tempo of combat in Afghanistan as a U.S. troop buildup gets underway in earnest, five Western troops died Monday in or following clashes in the south and east. At least three of the dead were Americans.
It was the worst daily toll in months for the Western coalition, which had originally given a total of six troop deaths. Foreign forces will increase this year by 30,000 American troops and an additional 7,000 from allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Four of the deaths occurred in separate incidents in Afghanistan’s restive south, where most of the newly arriving troops are expected to be deployed.
Military officials said three Americans were killed in a clash with insurgents and a fourth foreign service member, whose nationality was not immediately disclosed, died in a roadside bombing.
The other fatality, identified by the French government as one of its soldiers, occurred in Afghanistan’s east, where many of the insurgent fighters belong to militant groups based in neighboring Pakistan’s tribal areas.
The Western military initially reported that a second service member had died of wounds, but today retracted that report.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force also disclosed the death Sunday of an American service member wounded in an attack a day earlier in the south. That followed the deaths Saturday of a U.S. Marine and a British journalist in a powerful roadside bomb explosion in Helmand province.
Helmand, together with neighboring Kandahar province, is considered the heartland of the insurgency. American, British, Canadian and other allied forces have suffered significant casualties in recent months in that swath of the south.
Fighting in Afghanistan often tapers off with the onset of winter weather, as heavy snow accumulates in the mountain passes, hampering insurgents’ ability to move fighters and weapons. But the winter has been unusually mild this year, and clashes have continued accordingly.
Most Western military casualties are caused by insurgent-planted roadside bombs, but fighting also breaks out regularly between foreign forces and Taliban militants. The insurgents often stage ambushes in the wake of an explosion severe enough to drive foreign troops out of their armored vehicles, or strike as soldiers are patrolling on foot.
Enormous numbers of buried bombs -- so heavy a concentration that commanders describe the devices as a “crust” in some areas -- endanger Afghan civilians as well as foreign troops. Afghanistan’s Interior Ministry on Monday said two Afghan road workers were killed the day before in Helmand’s Nawa district when their vehicle struck a homemade bomb near the area where the Marine and the British journalist died.
U.S. Marines are preparing to launch a major offensive in the near future in the Helmand River Valley, commanders have said. The Marines, who arrived in force over the summer, are expected soon to push into the town of Marja, where many insurgents have taken shelter from fighting elsewhere in the area. The town, ringed by canals and agricultural fields, is a major hub for narcotics trafficking, and Taliban fighters have had free rein in the area.
Meanwhile, Afghan and U.S. officials said Monday that they were moving ahead with plans to hand over the American-run prison at Bagram air base outside Kabul, the capital. The facility had been the target of complaints by human rights groups and ex-detainees who reported serious abuses.
A new prison facility has since been opened at the base, and about 750 prisoners, mostly Afghans, are still being held. Some are expected to be transitioned into the Afghan prison system after the transfer.
The date for the transfer has not been set, but a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi, told reporters in Kabul that he expected it would take place “within a few months.”
The commander of American detainee operations in Afghanistan, Navy Vice Adm. Robert Harward, said at the same news conference that under new rules, suspected insurgents could still be held by the military at field detention sites, but only for “a very short period of time.”