Military death toll rises in Afghanistan as Taliban regain strength
WASHINGTON: More American and coalition troops died in Afghanistan last month than during any other month since the American-led invasion began in 2001, the latest evidence of a strengthening Taliban insurgency that has menaced NATO forces and reclaimed control over some southern and eastern parts of the country.
The violence in Afghanistan has surged at the same time as the number of attacks and American deaths in Iraq have fallen. Among the American-led forces in the two countries, 46 service members were killed in Afghanistan, compared with 31 in Iraq, the second straight month in which combat deaths in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq.
A recent Pentagon report about Afghanistan painted a stark picture of security conditions inside the country, a militant force that had "coalesced into a resilient insurgency" and a central government in Kabul that still could not extend its reach into the hinterlands. An American commander, Major General Jeffrey Schloesser, has said that militant attacks on coalition troops increased by 40 percent from January to May compared with the same period last year.
The violence has spiked even as the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan approaches its highest level since 2001. Roughly 32,000 American troops are deployed inside the country, up from 25,000 in 2005. The Pentagon is now considering sending an additional 7,000 troops to help tamp down the worsening violence.
The American-led coalition also includes about 38,000 troops from dozens of other countries who are operating under NATO leadership.
Still, American commanders in Kabul and military officials in Washington have said that coalition force levels remain too low. Before departing Afghanistan last month at the end of a tour as senior commander there, General Dan McNeill called Afghanistan an "under-resourced war," and he warned that Pakistan was not doing nearly enough to stem the flow of militant fighters across the mountain border it shares with Afghanistan.
McNeill said the Afghanistan mission "needs more maneuver units, it needs more flying machines, it needs more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance units."
Even with thousands more American troops heading to Afghanistan, military officials said that still might not be enough. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has repeatedly urged NATO member countries to commit more troops to the conflict, but those commitments have been few and far between.
The growing concern expressed by American commanders is fueled by intelligence reports about an increasingly complex enemy. The Pentagon report, released last week, describes the potential for "two distinct insurgencies in Afghanistan": a Taliban-led insurgency based in the southern city of Kandahar, and a confederation of militant groups in eastern Afghanistan that occasionally find refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas.
The "shared goals" of the two insurgencies, the report said, "include the expulsion of all foreign military forces from Afghanistan, the elimination of external government influence in their respective areas, and the imposition of a religiously conservative, Pashtun-led government."
The increase in violence in Afghanistan in recent months is partly a function of the weather. The tradition in a country that has known war for centuries is for fighting to subside during the winter, when snow blankets much of the country. The melting of the snow brings with it a resurgence of guerrilla combat.
The data on combat deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq comes from Pentagon figures and an independent Web site, icasualties.org, that compiles official casualty reports. Lieutenant Colonel Les' Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department's final death tally for June could still rise after military officials notify family members of personnel killed in the two countries.
It is difficult to track figures for civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, because neither country's government keeps reliable monthly casualty statistics.
With the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq appearing to be following opposite trajectories, Afghan militants are increasingly turning to tactics first employed by Iraqi insurgents. The Pentagon report notes an increase in attacks using roadside bombs. Attacks of this type already increased to 2,615 in 2007, from 1,931 in 2006.
American military and intelligence officials are almost unanimous about the most significant factor fueling the Afghan insurgency: the ability of militant groups to operate with relative impunity inside Pakistan's tribal areas. The officials say the groups use the tribal areas as a haven and a base to stage cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.
American officials are openly critical of Pakistan's efforts against militant groups and are skeptical of the Pakistani government's attempts to negotiate with tribal leaders, who operate with a high degree of autonomy.
In both 2005 and 2006, after Pakistani leaders negotiated peace deals with militants, cross-border attacks on coalition troops in Afghanistan skyrocketed.