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A Wake-Up Call From Afghanistan
Increased Fighting Draws More Attention to the Strain Posed by the Iraq War

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."

A narrow majority of respondents in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll said the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting -- far more than say the same about Iraq.

Fifty-one percent said the United States must win in Afghanistan to succeed in the broader terrorism fight, yet just 44 percent said military action there has been successful, down from 70 percent in 2002.

"I'd say you have to get 'em. That's where the terrorists are hidden," said Mike Burns, a labor union executive who remains worried about the high costs of twin wars. "That's a NATO mission, too."

Zwilling, a 173rd Airborne paratrooper, had been in Afghanistan longer than a year and was due to return to his base in Italy this week. He had already bought a plane ticket to Cancun to celebrate.

When he learned of the mission to build a remote outpost for arriving troops, he fretted in a phone call and e-mails to his father that U.S. troops and their Afghan partners would be outgunned. He predicted "a bloodbath," according to his uncle Gary Zwilling, a Vietnam veteran.

"I don't want to say 'frightened.' I want to say 'hesitant,' because he wasn't afraid of anything. They knew there was going to be major trouble," Zwilling said as friends filed into a funeral home here.

"I just wish we could finish this. I want this to stop. You don't have to keep sending young boys off to die," said Zwilling. He describes himself as "conservative and pro-military" and considers his nephew's death avoidable. "I know mistakes are made. War is not a science. But they've got to keep from making the mistakes."

His own view is that more U.S. troops should go to Afghanistan and, if necessary, neighboring Pakistan, to chase enemy insurgents: "Follow them in there and take care of it."

Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), recently back from Afghanistan, senses a "realization" among his constituents that it is "a festering place, and more and more is where we need to focus our attention."

"People are weary of war in general and the high human and financial costs," Carnahan said. "But I think people more and more see the distinction, because that's where the 9/11 attacks were organized from."

Kurt Zwilling spoke not of greater causes but of his lost son at Tuesday's memorial service, where Gunnar was remembered by one aunt as "dark-eyed little hell-raiser" and blessed by another who said the angels "now have better music and are better armed."

As his surviving son, Alex, an airman serving in Iraq, draped a uniformed arm over his shoulders, Zwilling told of the last time he saw Gunnar, home on leave.

"He just said to me, 'I would like to tell you something, Dad.' He said, 'If something happens to me, I want you all to go on. I want you to live a happy, long life.' And he looked at me and he said, 'You remember this.' "He said, 'My last thoughts before I die will be of you.' "And he kissed me. He hugged me and he turned around and walked onto the plane."

Zwilling said he felt "honored, honored," to be father of Gunnar, who was awarded the Bronze Star on Tuesday. Long after life for so many others has moved on, he said, the family will be left "to pick up the pieces of our shattered hearts and the unquenchable thirst for the love of our lives."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.

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