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US casualties in Afghanistan reach record high

66 deaths in July is most in one month

Protesters destroyed a car during clashes after four Afghans were stuck and killed by an SUV driven by US contract employees. Protesters destroyed a car during clashes after four Afghans were stuck and killed by an SUV driven by US contract employees. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
By Robert H. Reid
Associated Press / July 31, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — NATO announced yesterday that six more US troops have died in Afghanistan, bringing the death toll for July to at least 66 and surpassing the previous month’s record as the deadliest for American forces in the nearly nine-year-old war.

All signs point to more bloodshed in the months ahead, straining the already shaky international support for the war.

At the same time, there are signs that Afghan patience with the presence of thousands of foreign troops is running thin. In the capital, Kabul, police fired weapons into the air to disperse a crowd of angry Afghans who shouted “Death to America,’’ hurled stones, and set fire to two American vehicles.

The melee broke out after an SUV, driven by US contract employees, was involved in a traffic accident that killed four Afghans, according to the capital’s criminal investigations chief, Abdul Ghaafar Sayedzada.

The US contractor, DynCorp International, confirmed that its employees, working on a program sponsored by the State Department, were involved in an accident on the main road to the Kabul airport. It said the workers, and other employees who arrived to help, were attacked by the crowd and their vehicles were burned.

US officials confirmed the latest American combat deaths but gave no further details. Five of the latest reported deaths were a result of hidden bombs — the insurgents’ weapon of choice — and the sixth was an armed attack, NATO said.

Commanders say American casualties are mounting because more troops are fighting, and the Taliban are stiffening resistance as NATO and Afghan forces challenge the insurgents in areas they can’t afford to give up without a fight.

Increased fighting around Kandahar is part of a NATO strategy to secure the city, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace where support for the insurgency runs deep. US commanders have described Kandahar city as the key to controlling the Taliban’s southern heartland because of the city’s symbolic links to the insurgency.

As the United States and its allies step up pressure around Kandahar, Taliban resistance has also intensified in Helmand Province to the west and in Zabul Province to the east. Those three provinces account for roughly 70 percent of the US deaths this month.

British and Afghan troops launched a new offensive yesterday in the Sayedebad area of Helmand to try to deny insurgents a base from which to launch attacks in Nad Ali and Marja, the British military announced. Coalition and Afghan troops have sought to solidify control of Marja after overrunning the southern community five months ago.

American deaths dropped last spring after the February capture of Marja, but US fatalities have been rising recently, from 19 in April to 34 in May to 60 in June. Last month’s deaths for the entire NATO-led force reached a record 104, including the 60 Americans. This month’s coalition death count stands at 89, including the 66 Americans.

Some US military officers speculated that the spring drop in fatalities was due in part to the fact that many Taliban fighters in the south were busy harvesting the annual opium poppy crop, a major source of funding for the insurgents.

As the harvest ended and the pace of battle accelerated, more American troops were streaming into the country as part of President Obama’s decision last December to dispatch 30,000 reinforcements in a bid to turn back a resurgent Taliban.

American troop strength stands at about 95,000, and by the end of August the figure is expected to swell to 100,000, three times the number in early 2009. Commanders say more boots on the ground inevitably means more casualties.

The rise in casualties could erode support for the war in Washington and the capitals of the 45 other countries that provide troops, especially if NATO commanders are unable to show progress in curbing the Taliban.

Obama has promised to begin withdrawing US troops in July next year with the pace to be determined by conditions on the ground.

With the additional troops, US commanders have been stepping up the fight against the insurgents in their longtime strongholds such as the Arghandab Valley, Panjwaii, and Zhari — all on the outskirts of Kandahar city, the biggest urban area in the ethnic Pashtun south.

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