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 powerful bombs killed eight soldiers and an interpreter in separate attacks Tuesday.
This time of year typically brings a decline in violence as insurgents regroup as cold weather approaches. 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.
The significance of Tuesday's violence was that it 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.
Amid growing public disenchantment with the war, top 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 more 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 from some Democrats that 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.
The bombings came just one day after 14 Americans, including 11 soldiers, were killed in two separate helicopter crashes in rural Afghanistan. Military officials said no enemy attack was involved in either crash, but the incidents were under investigation. One helicopter crashed in western Afghanistan after it took off from the scene of an anti-drug raid and a firefight with the Taliban; the other crash involved two NATO helicopters that collided in flight in southern Afghanistan.
The city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban in the mid-1990s, now is 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, a lush river valley speckled with fruit trees, described a growing presence of Taliban fighters who can blend into the population during the day and intimidate people 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."
The district used to be overseen by a pro-government elder from the Alokozai tribe, but since his death, the Taliban has made inroads in the past six months, said Khalid Pashtun, a parliament member from Kandahar.
"Since the Taliban entered, now you will hear sporadic fighting," Pashtun said. "They are buying the fertilizer, explosives, gunpowder, and they can carry out these explosions."
The bombs interrupted a relative lull in insurgent attacks, which some say could be the result of fighters retreating to neighboring Pakistan to escape the oncoming winter or to bolster the ranks fighting the Pakistani military in the tribal area of South Waziristan. Typically, fighting in Afghanistan has dropped off in the colder months as insurgents regrouped and plotted for the next year's campaign.
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," he said.
Staff writer Greg Jaffe in Washington and special correspondent Javed Hamdard in Kabul contributed to this report.