Military deaths pass 2,000 as Afghan war review looms
KABUL (Reuters) - Total foreign military deaths in Afghanistan have passed 2,000 since the war began in late 2001, unofficial tallies showed on Sunday, in the approach to U.S. and Afghan elections and a U.S. strategy review.
The U.S. military accounted for more than 60 percent of the deaths but the total still lags the list of Afghan civilian casualties, which a U.N. report last week showed had risen sharply despite a drop in the number blamed on foreign troops.
The deaths of at least one more U.S. service member, an Australian and a Briton announced in the past two days have pushed the total of foreign military deaths to 2,002 since the Taliban were ousted in late 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition.
The total is less than half that suffered during the seven years of the Iraq war but is a significant milestone nonetheless, with NATO allies like the Netherlands pulling out of the alliance and others reviewing their future roles.
President Barack Obama has promised a strategy review in December after November mid-term Congressional elections where his Democrats face a backlash from an increasingly skeptical public.
Afghans also face parliamentary elections on September 18. A presidential ballot a year ago was marred by fraud.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under pressure to show independence from his Western backers and this week asked Obama for a review of how the war is being conducted.
Violence has hit its worst levels since the Taliban were toppled despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops, with the insurgency spilling out of Taliban strongholds in the south and east into the north and west.
U.S. Army General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said on Sunday he saw areas of progress but meeting Obama's goal of starting to withdraw troops by July 2011 would depend on conditions at the time.
He described the battle against the Taliban as an "up and down process" and said it was premature to assess its success.
"What we have are areas of progress. We've got to link those together, extend them," Petraeus said in an interview aired on Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" programme.
Petraeus, who replaced the sacked General Stanley McChrystal in June, said he would give his "best professional military advice" to Obama about the withdrawal timetable.
Obama, who has boosted U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan, plans a strategy review in December after the mid-term elections. Congress supported his troop surge but polls show the U.S. public remains uncertain about the effort.
At the same time, U.S. commanders have warned of a tougher fight ahead as troops take on the Taliban in their southern strongholds and confront other insurgents like the al-Qaeda linked Haqqani network in the east.
Leaders in Washington have also sought to lower expectations of what can be achieved.
Disputes over the Afghan war have already brought down a Dutch government in February and a German president in May.
According to www.iCasualties.org, an independent website that monitors foreign troop deaths, 2002 troops have been killed since 2001, 1,226 of them Americans. British losses total 331, with the remaining 445 shared among the other 44 coalition partners.
Its figures were matched by a tally kept by Reuters.
June 2010 was the bloodiest month of the war with 102 killed as foreign forces pushed ahead with operations in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Another 88 were killed in July, with the total for the year so far standing at 434, according to iCasualties, fast approaching 2009's 521.
The losses in Afghanistan are less than half of those in the Iraq war, where at least 4,723 foreign troops have been killed since 2003, 4,405 of them American.
But, with Washington dramatically cutting troop numbers in Iraq before the formal end of combat operations on August 31, attention is certain to be focused back on the Afghan conflict.
Just as was the case in Iraq, civilians are bearing the brunt of the conflict in Afghanistan.
A U.N. mid-year report last week showed civilian casualties had risen by 31 percent over the first six months of 2010, compared with the same period last year. That figure included 1,271 killed.
Civilian casualties caused by U.S. and other foreign forces have long been a source of friction between the Afghan government and its Western backers and led to a major falling-out between the two sides last year.
It also resulted in two tightenings of tactical directives, first by McChrystal and then by Petraeus in June, limiting the use of aerial strikes and house searches.
The U.N. report said Taliban and other insurgents were responsible for 76 percent of casualties.
Deaths caused by "pro-government forces" fell to 12 percent of the total from 30 percent last year, due mainly to a 64 percent fall in deaths caused by aerial attacks.
(Additional reporting by John Whitesides in Washington; Editing by Ralph Boulton)
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