By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
KABUL -- October became the deadliest month for U.S. troops in the eight-year-old war in Afghanistan when two bombs killed eight soldiers and an interpreter in separate attacks Tuesday.
This time of year typically brings a decline in violence as insurgents regroup with cold weather approaching. Instead, the bloodiest days this month have displayed both the range of threats American soldiers face and the persistent danger of the most basic weapons.
Soldiers have died in a lone outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan that was nearly overrun by more than 100 insurgents firing rockets and grenades. They have been killed in gun battles and in crashing helicopters. And they died Tuesday in Kandahar province in a dismayingly familiar way: by homemade bombs buried in the road.
Tuesday's violence again showed an inability to protect against the type of explosives that killed the most Americans in Iraq and are killing the most here, too. This year has already surpassed any other in Afghanistan in U.S. military deaths, and the rising toll poses urgent problems for the Obama administration as it attempts to fashion a new war strategy. Fifty-four U.S. troops died in October, surpassing the previous high of 51 in August, according to iCasualties.org.
Early Wednesday, violence erupted in central Kabul as Afghan forces exchanged gunfire with militants holed up inside a private guesthouse where United Nations workers stay. The Taliban, through a spokesman, asserted responsibility for the attack on the guesthouse, which lasted more than an hour.
At press time, there were contradictory reports from local authorities and the United Nations on casualties among U.N. staff. An Afghan army general said all the attackers were dead.
Top U.S. military commanders have said they need thousands of reinforcements to beat back the resurgent Taliban, but President Obama has said he does not want to rush a decision to send more troops. His advisers have in recent weeks debated the way forward in Afghanistan, while the military has conducted war games to test the effect of thousands of additional troops.
"I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary," Obama told a military audience in Jacksonville, Fla., on Monday. "And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt."
Senior military officials said the higher fatality rate would not have a major impact on the strategy debates. They said casualties, which often spike as troops push into enemy-controlled areas, generally were a poor measure of how things were going in Afghanistan. The higher fatality rate, however, could have an impact in Congress, where Obama faces skepticism about whether more troops will make a substantial difference.
"Every lawmaker gets notified each time someone from their home state gets killed," said Richard Fontaine, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "The real costs of these wars enter into the decision-making process of these lawmakers."
He said the higher fatality rate also increases the pressure on Obama to make the case that success in Afghanistan is worth the increased cost in lives.
The deadliest of Tuesday's two bombs, known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, exploded in the Arghandab district of Kandahar province. It blew up an eight-wheeled Army vehicle known as a Stryker. The early morning blast killed seven soldiers and an interpreter and seriously wounded another soldier, U.S. military officials said.
The bombs often are made from readily available ingredients such as fertilizer and diesel fuel and have proven capable of destroying any vehicle U.S. soldiers have at their disposal.
A military statement described the attack as "complex," but Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith, a military spokesman, said that "it was a single IED, obviously a large IED, that hit a single vehicle." An outburst of gunfire followed the bombing, and military aircraft fired rockets at the suspected insurgents, killing at least one of them, he said. The eighth soldier died in a separate bomb blast, also in Kandahar province.
A day earlier, 14 Americans, including 11 soldiers, were killed in two helicopter crashes in rural Afghanistan. Military officials said no enemy attack was involved in either crash, but the incidents were under investigation.
Both the province and the city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, are now considered a key objective for the Islamist militia in its battle to regain power. The remnants of the former Taliban government, led by Mohammad Omar, "has been working to control Kandahar and its approaches for several years," Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, wrote in his war assessment this year. "There are indications that their influence over the city and neighboring districts is significant and growing."
Afghan officials in Arghandab described a growing presence of fighters who can blend into the population during the day and carry out attacks at night.
"During the day, 30 to 40 percent of the district is under control of the Taliban, but at night, 80 percent of the district is under their control," said Haji Agha Lalai, who works with a government reconciliation program in Kandahar. "The Taliban are patrolling and walking freely."
During Wednesday's attack in Kabul, security forces blocked all streets surrounding the guesthouse as smoke rose in the air.
"At about 5:40 in the morning, we were suddenly awakened by sounds of heavy gunfire," said Mohammed Jan, an area resident. "It was so strong that we thought it was a coup against the government. But by around 7:15, everything was quiet again and it was over."
A U.N. spokesman, Aleem Siddiq, said that many people had escaped from the guesthouse and that some of them were injured as they fled.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, reached by phone during the siege, said: "Three days ago we issued a decree saying that we would disturb the Afghan elections. This morning three of our brave holy warriors attacked a U.N. guesthouse. They have Kalashnikovs, grenades, rockets and suicide vests. If they have to, they will blow themselves up."
Wednesday's assault in Kabul and Tuesday's bombings interrupted a relative lull in insurgent attacks, which some say could be the result of fighters retreating to Pakistan to escape the oncoming winter or to help fight the Pakistani military in the tribal area of South Waziristan.
Smith, the U.S. military spokesman, said it was too early to say whether insurgents were changing their colder-weather tactics, as snows have only just begun to fall in some parts of the country.
The Taliban remains active year-round, he said, recruiting in villages during the winter and doing a lot of its "real work" to prepare for fighting.
"There may be less kinetic efforts, but they're not slowing down," Smith said.
Correspondent Pamela Constable in Kabul, staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.