By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
June was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war there began in late 2001, as resilient and emboldened insurgents have stepped up attacks in an effort to gain control of the embattled country.
Defense officials and Afghanistan experts said the toll of 28 U.S. combat deaths recorded last month demonstrates a new resurgence of the Taliban, the black-turbaned extremists who were driven from power by U.S. forces almost seven years ago. Taliban units and other insurgent fighters have reconstituted in the country's south and east, aided by easy passage from mountain redoubts in neighboring Pakistan's lawless tribal regions.
The officials and experts said the spike in troop deaths should not be the only measure of the growing conflict in Afghanistan, but they acknowledged that the Taliban's persistent attacks on military units and civilians have frustrated U.S. and international efforts to help the Afghan government secure the country.
"What it points to is that the opposition is becoming more effective," said Barnett R. Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at New York University. "It is having a presence in more areas, being better organized, better financed and having a sustainable strategy. In all, their strategic situation has improved."
Violence in rural areas controlled by the Taliban and in eastern provinces along the border with Pakistan has increased in recent weeks as insurgents have begun using more makeshift bombs, borrowing a tactic honed by insurgents in Iraq. According to top U.S. commanders, the number of violent incidents has risen nearly 40 percent during the first half of 2008 compared with last year.
The grim total surpassed the 27 troop fatalities in Afghanistan in June 2005. But that total included the 16 troops killed on a single day in a helicopter crash.
The 28 U.S. troops were killed by roadside bombs, small-arms fire and rocket attacks and in unspecified combat operations. The total nearly equaled the 29 announced U.S. troop deaths last month in Iraq, where violence has abated in the wake of the buildup of U.S. forces that began last year.
There have been 533 U.S. combat deaths to date in Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes Afghanistan and other areas. About 32,000 American troops are stationed in Afghanistan, along with about 30,000 from other countries. The United States has 145,000 troops in Iraq, according to the Defense Department.
British troops also experienced one of their worst months for combat fatalities since the invasion of Afghanistan, with 13 killed in June.
Although the summer traditionally brings increased fighting in Afghanistan, where mountainous terrain becomes more passable, Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have called the past month a particularly difficult time.
The department's first congressionally mandated report on Afghanistan last week predicted increased violence throughout 2008. U.S. and international forces are fighting both an entrenched Taliban and extremist groups, including al-Qaeda, that are using Pakistani tribal areas to recruit and train fighters before sending them across the border.
Defense officials point to the situation in Pakistan as a central problem. As the Pakistani government has reduced pressure on militants in largely ungoverned tribal areas, insurgents have increased their movement and attacks.
"That has proven to be particularly problematic lately," said Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon's press secretary. As in Iraq, he added, "a military solution will not suffice. There has to be better governance, less corruption, more economic development and more vigilance paid to counternarcotics in order to ultimately bring peace and stability to Afghanistan."
Seth Jones, a Rand Corp. expert on Afghanistan, said some areas, such as Helmand province, have experienced an increase in violence because U.S. troops have moved into areas controlled by insurgents. In some rural areas, however, insurgents have moved in and are facing little or no government influence.
"As you track these numbers month by month, you do see peaks and valleys in levels of violence," Jones said. "It is not surprising to see peaks in the spring and summer. The biggest concern is the sheer levels of violence incrementally increasing since 2002. The biggest concern is that violence levels are higher than they ever have been."
Some experts, including those at the Pentagon, say that the war in Afghanistan will probably become more violent before it calms, meaning the next U.S. president could inherit an increasingly bloody conflict.
"A lot of it is psychological warfare, with the belief that what they have to do is stay in the game," said Marvin G. Weinbaum, an Afghanistan expert at the Middle East Institute. "They want to draw attention to themselves as a serious force, with the expectation that the international community is going to tire of this and is going to back off."
He added: "They don't expect to take over the country in the short term; they're playing for the longer term. What they have done recently is to accelerate the strategy."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.