Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Islamabad, —
Insurgents shot down a NATO helicopter in southern Afghanistan on Wednesday and killed four U.S. soldiers while another coalition service member died in a roadside bombing. The attacks made the first nine days of June one of the deadliest spans this year for Western troops mired in the nearly nine-year war against the Taliban insurgency.
The five coalition service members were killed in the country's volatile Helmand province, part of the Taliban's heartland in the south and a key focus of President Obama's troop buildup aimed at crippling the insurgency and forcing it to negotiate an end to the war. So far this month, 29 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan, a rate of more than three deaths a day.
Nineteen of those were U.S. soldiers, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks U.S. and NATO military deaths in Afghanistan.
Elsewhere in the south, an Afghan official said 39 people were killed in a blast in Kandahar province's Argandab district, the Associated Press reported. Provincial executive director Mohammad Annus said the explosion Wednesday night left more than 70 people wounded. He did not provide further details.
The latest violence came as U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, speaking in London, warned that the U.S. and its Western allies in Afghanistan would have to show signs of gaining the upper hand against militants by the end of the year or risk losing popular backing for the war.
"All of us, for our publics, are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the track, making some headway," Gates said as he prepared for meetings this week in Brussels with defense ministers from NATO-allied nations.
Defeating the Taliban in its strongholds in southern Afghanistan is a crucial component of Washington's strategy against the insurgency. U.S. commanders are readying a major offensive this summer against militants in the city of Kandahar, the Taliban's former headquarters. Insurgents, however, have fought back with stepped-up attacks against coalition troops and Afghan security forces in the south.
In the attack on the helicopter, insurgents fired rocket-propelled grenades to bring down the aircraft in Helmand's Sangin district, said provincial spokesman Daud Ahmadi. A coalition forces spokesman said the roadside bombing that killed a coalition soldier also occurred in Helmand, but he did not release the service member's nationality or give any other details.
Meanwhile, in Pakistan, militants attacked dozens of trucks transporting military vehicles to U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan late Tuesday night, killing seven people and injuring fours.
Militant attacks in Pakistan against Afghanistan-bound NATO supply convoys at or near the Afghan-Pakistan border occur frequently. However, the latest attack was unusual in that it took place just outside Islamabad, the heavily secured capital. NATO troops in Afghanistan get most of their supplies and fuel from convoys that travel from the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Saqib Sultan, an Islamabad police official, said 12 to 14 militants on motorcycles and in a pickup truck arrived at the depot, where dozens of Afghanistan-bound trucks were parked. They opened fire on the convoy's truck drivers and then used gasoline to set the trucks ablaze.
Ghous Muhammad, a 22-year-old truck driver, said he was sleeping when the gunmen converged on the depot.
"Suddenly I heard firing and saw people running in panic," Muhammad said. "They threw gasoline on the trucks and set them on fire with torches. Other drivers were shouting, 'Rescue your vehicle if you can, otherwise run for your life!' "
Times staff writer Rodriguez reported from Kabul and special correspondent Khan from Islamabad.