A Wake-Up Call From Afghanistan

Kurt Zwilling, left, and his surviving son, Airman 1st Class Alex Zwilling, support each other during the interment of Army Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling.
Kurt Zwilling, left, and his surviving son, Airman 1st Class Alex Zwilling, support each other during the interment of Army Cpl. Gunnar Zwilling. (By Huy R. Mach -- St. Louis Post-dispatch)
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 23, 2008

ST. CHARLES, Mo., July 22 -- For Kurt Zwilling, the nine days since his soldier son was killed in an assault on a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan have been like living in a faded photograph. He stood near his son's coffin Tuesday and told mourners, "You know, right now the world looks a little bit off. The colors are not as bright."

Cpl. Gunnar W. Zwilling, 20, was one of nine U.S. soldiers to die in a predawn attack that highlighted a dangerous new phase in an Afghan conflict that has received far less attention than the battle for Iraq.

Some call it the forgotten war, but it seems about to be remembered.

When insurgents mustered superior numbers and overpowered U.S. and Afghan forces in remote Konar province on July 13, more U.S. soldiers died than were killed by enemy action in all of Iraq during the first three weeks in July.

A pattern began to emerge about three months ago: Since May 1, 52 American troops have been killed in action in Afghanistan, compared with 43 in a quieting Iraq.

The growing casualties and the resurgence of the Taliban and its anti-American allies have prompted vows by President Bush and his aspiring successors to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.

Bush said recently that he intends to send three more brigades, or about 10,000 soldiers, to a rugged land where about 32,000 U.S. troops are now stationed. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) agreed last week that more troops are needed, while Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has long favored sending at least two more combat brigades, partly by shifting forces from Iraq.

"I can't put a number on it, but there are going to be more. We're short of NATO troops. We're short of American troops. We're short 3,000 trainers of the Afghan army," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "If we're going to come out of there successful, we've got to have more troops."

At a time when the Iraq war remains deeply unpopular, the shifting dynamic is likely to test the country's willingness to support the commitment of more troops and money to a lesser-known war in a distant theater.

Opinion polls and a random sampling in this Missouri River town suggest cautious support, particularly if the mission is sharply focused and is conducted with the help of U.S. allies.

"Seems like the Taliban's built back up and it's becoming a problem again," said Ray Lesley, a carpenter stocking up at One Stop Beer, Bait and Bullets. "Finish the job, increase the troops or otherwise withdraw. There's no point in sacrificing lives if you don't accomplish your job."

Debbie Stanger, visiting from neighboring Illinois, said she wants to see American leaders "focus more on what they need to get at," adding: "It seems a lot of killing is going on and they need to focus on getting the bad guys."

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