By Ann Scott Tyson and Greg Jaffe
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
GARMSIR, Afghanistan, July 21 -- U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have surged to a record high this month and are likely to remain elevated as American and NATO forces settle into outposts in southern Afghan villages and cities where Taliban forces have traditionally been the strongest.
The rising death toll comes as the country prepares for a presidential election next month, and could erode U.S. public support for a war that is already among the longest in U.S. history.
"This is probably the new normal," said Seth G. Jones, an analyst for the Rand Corp. and author of a new book on the U.S. military's nearly eight-year-old war in Afghanistan. "I'd actually be shocked if casualties didn't continue to increase."
A confluence of factors has contributed to July's toll, which is the highest for U.S. troops in Afghanistan in any month since the war began in late 2001. Among them: President Obama's new strategy ordering tens of thousands more U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year, a surge in offensive operations by both U.S. forces and the Taliban, and an increase in insurgents' use of powerful roadside bombs.
So far this month, 31 U.S. troops have died in Afghanistan, surpassing the record of 28 deaths in June 2008. Losses for the entire NATO-led coalition, including British, Canadian, Dutch and other forces, have also spiked this month, feeding growing unease over the war in those countries.
Americans still approve of the Obama administration's handling of the war by a ratio of about 2-1, with 62 percent approving and 30 percent disapproving, according to a new Washington Post-ABC poll. But there has been no movement on whether the United States is making significant progress toward winning the war. The public remains closely divided on that question, with 46 percent saying the United States is making progress. Nearly half of Americans, 45 percent, say the war was not worth fighting.
Senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, have said that the U.S., NATO and Afghan forces must start to show progress in Afghanistan by next summer or risk losing support for the conflict in Washington and NATO capitals. In the near term, U.S. commanders are focused on trying to secure as much of the country as possible before Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential and provincial elections, which are being touted as a milestone in the country's development.
Although U.S. Marines are in the midst of a major offensive in the south, American troops have suffered the heaviest losses in the east, where 16 U.S. soldiers have been killed this month. The vast majority of those fatalities have been caused by roadside bombs, which have grown increasingly sophisticated. As the Marines in southern Afghanistan move into more established bases in cities, military analysts said, it is likely casualties will continue to rise.
"Our initial attack into the south has probably thrown the enemy off balance," said John A. Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. "I am afraid that when the Taliban regain their balance in the south, casualties will increase there as well."
In the weeks before U.S. troops began pushing into the country as part of the Obama administration's new strategy, senior U.S. commanders were predicting a long and bloody summer and fall for American soldiers and Marines. "Even a successful counterinsurgency campaign looks bad in the early going," Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the most recent issue of the American Interest, a foreign policy journal.
Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has ordered his troops to push into Afghan villages and cities and focus on protecting the residents from insurgent intimidation and violence. He has also placed strict limits on the use of airstrikes in an effort to lower Afghan civilian casualties, which have infuriated the population in recent years.
A similar spike in U.S. military fatalities occurred in Iraq in the summer of 2007 after President George W. Bush dispatched about 30,000 additional troops to the country in an effort to quell sectarian violence and insurgent attacks. U.S. troop levels will roughly double this year in Afghanistan -- rising far more sharply than they did in Iraq during the "surge" ordered by Bush. The reinforcements are allowing U.S. forces to push aggressively into Taliban-held areas in the east and south, as part of a counterinsurgency strategy that initially involves heavier combat as U.S. troops seek to drive the Taliban out of population centers.
The Taliban typically fights more during the warmer months, especially in eastern Afghanistan, where the winter is harsher. On Tuesday, insurgents in eastern Afghanistan launched complex, nearly simultaneous attacks on Afghan government and U.S. military compounds in the cities of Gardez and Jalalabad. The attacks killed six Afghan police and intelligence officers, while eight insurgents were killed, news agencies reported.
The insurgents, armed with explosives and rocket-propelled grenades, stormed the governor's compound, the intelligence department and the police department in Gardez as well as the U.S.-run airfield in Jalalabad, about 90 miles to the northeast. Three fighters tried to attack the U.S. base at Jalalabad. American and Afghan troops killed two of the attackers and captured a third, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.
The number of roadside bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, has increased 55 percent this year compared with the same period last year, according to military data. That includes a 34 percent rise in eastern Afghanistan, where the number went from 604 to 811, and a 78 percent increase in southern Afghanistan, where the number grew from 683 to 1,217. So far this year, 36 percent of the increase in such devices nationwide has occurred in the east, and 55 percent in the south.
"With the volume they are putting out right now, they don't have to be sophisticated," said Col. Mark Lee, the Counter IED Branch chief for Regional Command South, which covers southern Afghanistan. Afghanistan's dirt roads make it more difficult to spot the bombs, Lee said.
"The challenge is in Helmand province. It's all dirt roads, so they could be buried anywhere," Lee said of a province where 4,500 U.S. Marines are engaged in a major offensive.
Gunnery Sgt. Denis Desmarais of the 2nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Company said that in addition to being difficult for his crew to find, the bombs are large -- usually 40 to 50 pounds. Many roads in Helmand are now impassable because of the bombs, he said.
The work of the disposal crews is as dangerous as it is critical. This month, two Marines from Desmarais's unit were killed when they inadvertently stepped on a pressure-plate bomb in a portion of road that had not been inspected. Their bodies were recovered from a nearby canal.
The Post previously reported that a military official said the two Marines were killed when investigating an IED wire that ran into a house. Desmarais, who was at the scene of the bombing, said that was incorrect.
Jaffe reported from Washington. Staff researcher Julie Tate and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.