KABUL (Reuters) - The death toll for foreign troops in Afghanistan halfway through July equaled the highest for any month of the eight-year-old war, tallies showed on Wednesday, as a U.S. escalation has met unprecedented violence.
Authorities announced a U.S. soldier had been killed by a bomb and two Turks had died in a road accident, raising the toll of U.S. and allied foreign fatalities in the first half of July to 46, equal to full month highs set in August and June 2008.
In the two weeks since U.S. and British troops launched massive assaults, Western troops have died at an average rate of three a day, nearing the tempo of the bloodiest days in Iraq and almost 20 times the rate in Afghanistan from 2001-04.
The soaring death toll was an outcome of U.S. President Barack Obama’s escalation strategy, one that commanders say they predicted ahead of a decisive summer.
“It is something we did anticipate occurring as we extend our influence in the south,” U.S. Rear Admiral Greg Smith, spokesman for U.S. and NATO forces, said of the increased violence.
“You’re seeing a pretty intensive set of objectives being met in terms of routing the insurgents away from the population. The insurgents in many areas are pretty well entrenched.”
He added that the increased violence is likely to continue for several months at least, with the last of the U.S. reinforcements not expected to fully deploy until September.
Obama, who long accused predecessor George W. Bush of ignoring Afghanistan to fight what Obama called an unnecessary war in Iraq, has diverted thousands of troops to Afghanistan as he draws them down from Iraq.
In all, 2009 will see U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan more than double from 32,000 to 68,000, along with 36,000 troops from other Western allies.
The new troops are rapidly being sent to small outposts in towns and villages, mirroring some tactics of the “surge” of additional forces that Bush ordered in Iraq in 2007, which saw months of sharply increased U.S. losses before violence declined.
U.S. commanders do not use the term “surge” to refer to the reinforcements in Afghanistan because the increase is indefinite, not for a limited time as Bush ordered in Iraq.
But they say they are employing counter-insurgency tactics which proved successful in Iraq: pushing extra troops off big bases and onto streets to show they can protect the public.
At the start of this month the new U.S. troops, along with an existing British-led contingent, launched simultaneous assaults, the biggest of the war. Thousands have moved quickly into Taliban-held territory in Helmand province, the most violent part of Afghanistan and the insurgents’ opium-growing heartland.
Fighters have responded by seeding the area with roadside bombs and sniper nests, and also by stepping up suicide and roadside bomb attacks in other parts of the country. The homemade bombs are by far their most lethal tactic.
More fighting lies ahead. The U.S. Marines who launched Operation Strike of the Sword this month to seize the southern part of the Helmand River Valley have tried to take control of as large a populated area as possible with minimum confrontation.
Taliban fighters were allowed to move out of the valley into western suburbs of provincial capital Lashkar Gah, where they are now lurking in a densely irrigated canal network, U.S. troops say. Other provinces are next. U.S. reinforcements are coming to neighboring Kandahar province, the Taliban’s birthplace.
Obama said on Tuesday he wanted an exit strategy that would see control of territory passed to Afghan security forces.
Thousands of extra U.S. troops are coming to train Afghan soldiers and police, but the shortfall of local security forces is acute. A country with roughly the same population as Iraq, Afghanistan has only about a third as many soldiers and police.
Only about 650 Afghan troops and police were able to join 4,000 advancing U.S. Marines on Strike of the Sword. The Marines’ commander, Brigadier General Larry Nicholson, told the Washington Post his biggest concern was the shortfall of Afghan troops.
Editing by Paul Tait