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Record Western military deaths in Afghanistan in June

At least 102 Western troops died in June; 60 were U.S. service members. Although roadside bombs pose a significant hazard, other threats are growing as insurgents become bolder in their attacks.

July 01, 2010|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. Army personnel carry a wounded soldier to a U.S. Army MEDEVAC helicopter near Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. Army personnel carry a wounded soldier… (Justin Sullivan / Getty…)

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan —

As the Afghan war's bloodiest month for Western forces drew to a close Wednesday, the widening scope and relentless tempo of battlefield casualties pointed to a formidable challenge for U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming commander.

At least 102 coalition troops were killed in June in Afghanistan, according to the independent website icasualties.org, far surpassing the previous highest monthly total of 76 military fatalities in August 2009.

In a reflection of the increasingly American face of the war as the summer's troop buildup presses ahead, at least 60 of those killed were U.S. service members, including a soldier killed by small-arms fire Wednesday in eastern Afghanistan. The previous highest monthly death toll for American forces was in October 2009, when 59 were killed.

Buried roadside bombs continued to cause the majority of fatalities, despite what the military has described as some success using electronic surveillance to spot insurgents planting explosives and to stage raids on bomb-making rings.

But a plethora of other hazards have pushed to the fore as Petraeus, who was confirmed Wednesday by the Senate, 99-0, takes command in Afghanistan. Firefights, helicopter crashes, ambushes, sniper fire and complex coordinated assaults — such as Wednesday's attempt by insurgents to fight their way onto NATO's largest airbase in eastern Afghanistan — have also exacted a significant toll in deaths and injuries.

As the pattern of fatalities shows, it is a war with a widening geographical reach. The country's east and south, the traditional Taliban strongholds, predictably saw the heaviest fighting, but a swath of the north became increasingly restive as well.

A day in which a Western military death does not occur somewhere in Afghanistan has become rare. And fatalities in clusters of four or more in a single incident have become increasingly common. On two days in June, the daily tallies reached nine and 10.

In a far-flung country with relatively few passable roads, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's war effort relies heavily on helicopters. Two crashed in June, killing a total of eight troops. One of the helicopters was shot down by Taliban fighters in Helmand province, a rare feat but a tactic that may be assuming a more prominent place in the insurgents' arsenal.

Nearly nine years into the war, the NATO coalition is showing signs of strain, and in troop-contributing nations, an increase in the number of military deaths invariably fuels public debate.

In Britain, the most important U.S. partner in Afghanistan, skepticism about the necessity of the war is becoming entrenched. The country marked a grim and much-noticed milestone in June when a Royal Marine killed in Helmand province became the 300th British military fatality in Afghanistan.

In countries with smaller troop contingents, the shockwave from war deaths tends to be magnified.

Norway, which has about 500 troops in Afghanistan, suffered its largest single-day battlefield loss since World War II on Sunday when four of its soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in the north. Until then, the Norwegian death toll in the war had been five.

Another ally, Australia, was disproportionately hit by four troop deaths in June, three of them elite commandos killed in a helicopter crash in Kandahar. Those losses represented one-quarter of Australia's total war dead in Afghanistan.

Petraeus has acknowledged that battlefield casualties are unlikely to decline much as the summer wears on.

"My sense is that the tough fighting will continue," he told senators Tuesday at his confirmation hearing in Washington. "Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months."

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan attribute the increase in fatalities to the growing numbers of troops, combined with "going into places we haven't been — just a generalized increase in our operations," as U.S. Army Col. Wayne Shanks, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, put it.

Afghan forces too have been seeing larger numbers of troops killed. The Afghan army lost 37 men in June, said Defense Ministry spokesman Gen. Mohammed Zahir Azimi.

The insurgents' growing boldness — and willingness to sacrifice foot soldiers to stage an attention-getting attack with little hope of success — was reflected in Wednesday's strike on U.S.-run Jalalabad airfield, the third-largest air base in Afghanistan.

The attack also echoed strikes in the last five weeks on similarly large and well-fortified installations: Bagram airfield, north of Kabul, and Kandahar airfield, in the south. In both cases, the insurgents also failed to penetrate the bases' perimeters.

Wednesday's assault followed a recent pattern. The attackers first set off a car bomb, then fired rockets and mortar rounds. They were repelled, and eight insurgents died, but they managed to wound two troops.

June also brought a frustrating reminder that a year had passed since the capture of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, the only American soldier known to be held prisoner by the Taliban. Bergdahl, an Idaho native, disappeared outside his base in eastern Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. He has since been seen in several videos in which he appeals to U.S. forces to get out of Afghanistan.

laura.king@latimes.com

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