By JASON STRAZIUSO
The Associated Press
Sunday, November 11, 2007; 2:33 AM
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Militants ambushed and killed six U.S. troops walking in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan _ the most lethal attack in a year that has been the deadliest for the U.S. military here since the 2001 invasion.
The number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan this year mirror the record toll in Iraq. Both conflicts have seen an increase in troop levels this year that has put more soldiers in harm's way, including those killed Friday while returning from a meeting with village elders in Nuristan province. Militants wielding rocket propelled grenades killed the six Americans and three Afghan soldiers. Eight U.S. troops were wounded.
"They were attacked from several enemy positions at the same time," Lt. Col. David Accetta, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force and the U.S. military, said Saturday. "It was a complex ambush."
The six deaths brings the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this year to at least 101, according to an Associated Press count, surpassing the 93 troops killed in 2005. About 87 died last year. The toll echoes the situation in Iraq, where U.S. military deaths this year surpassed 850, also a record.
Launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the war in Afghanistan quickly ousted al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors and appeared to have been a swift military victory.
But insurgent attacks _ advanced ambushes and suicide and roadside bombs _ have risen sharply the last two years, and analysts say the counterinsurgency battle U.S. and NATO forces now face will take a decade or more to win.
Critics of the Bush administration say the Pentagon turned its attention away from Afghanistan during the build-up to the invasion in Iraq, leaving the military with too few resources here to back up that initial victory with an adequate security presence.
Though attacks in Iraq have dropped in recent months, U.S. troops there have also faced a rising number of suicide and roadside bombs since the 2003 invasion, known as asymmetric attacks in military circles.
Seth Jones, an expert on Afghanistan at the Washington-based RAND Corp., said the power of the U.S. military has forced insurgent groups into relying on such bombings.
"It's an irony that the United States far and away has the most powerful military in the world," said Jones. "I think the current levels of attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan show, however, that the key vulnerability to the United States both in Afghanistan and Iraq is the asymmetric attacks."
U.S. forces have two combat brigades _ more than 8,000 troops _ in eastern Afghanistan this year, up from one last year. The U.S. has about 25,000 forces in Afghanistan today _ 15,000 under NATO and 10,000 under the U.S.-led coalition.
Accetta said U.S. forces this year have pushed into new areas that traditionally have been militant safe havens.
"If you look back, last year we didn't have a significant presence in Nuristan and now we do," he said. "That all contributes to the fact there have been more casualties this year than there have been in previous years."
Violence is at record levels across the board. Insurgents have launched more than 130 suicide attacks, a record number, and Afghanistan last week saw its deadliest attack since 2001, a suicide bombing in Baghlan province that killed about 75 people, including 59 students and six members of parliament.
"It certainly is disturbing that U.S. casualty figures, though they are low in general, are increasing," Jones said. "But I think the most significant concern is the growth that is affecting Afghans, the whole panoply of raids, IEDs, suicide attacks, and the attack in Baghlan this week."
More than 5,800 people, mostly militants, have died due to insurgency-related violence this year, also a record, according to an AP count based on figures from Western and Afghan officials.
In Helmand province on Sunday, a suicide bomber detonated himself near a NATO convoy in the town of Gereshk, wounding three civilians nearby, said Helmand police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal. In the eastern province of Khost, police patrolling on foot Saturday were hit by a land-mine blast that killed one officer and wounded two civilians, said Wazir Pacha, a spokesman for the provincial police.
Anthony Cordesman, an expert on the U.S. military, said in a report this month that the average number of attacks in Afghanistan each month has risen 30 percent this year, from 425 in 2006 to 548 this year.
He labeled the Afghan conflict a "war of attrition that can last 15 or more years" that militants can win simply by outlasting U.S. and NATO efforts.
"As in Vietnam, tactical victory can easily become irrelevant," he wrote in a report for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies that called for greater development of the Afghan government and military.
Friday's ambush resulted in the highest number of U.S. casualties from a battle this year, Accetta said.
"With Sunday being Veterans Day, this is a reminder of the sacrifices that our troops and our Afghan partners make for the peace and stability of the Afghan people," Accetta said.
Fighter aircraft and troops using artillery and mortars at nearby outposts fired on the militants' positions, Accetta said. It wasn't immediately clear how many militants were involved in the ambush, he said.
Mohammad Daoud Nadim, Nuristan deputy police chief, said the ambush happened in the remote province's Waygal district, about 40 miles from the border with Pakistan, which militants are known to use as a sanctuary.
Arabs and other foreign fighters from Chechnya and Uzbekistan are known to operate in the Nuristan region, but the provincial governor, Tamin Nuristani, blamed the attack on Taliban militants. Nuristani said the combined troops searched two houses after the meeting with village elders and were ambushed while walking to their base afterward.
Nuristan province has seen heavy fighting recently. Two U.S. soldiers were killed and 13 wounded by an ambush in July, while militants disguised in Afghan army uniforms wounded 11 U.S. troops in August.
The attack Friday was the deadliest incident for U.S. troops since a Chinook crashed in February in Zabul province, killing eight Americans. Officials ruled out enemy fire as the cause of that crash.
Associated Press reporter Amir Shah contributed to this report.