BAGHDAD — Nearly twice as many U.S. troops have been killed in Afghanistan than in Iraq so far this month, marking the lowest death toll of any month since the U.S. invaded Iraq and putting July on course to be the first month in which the American military suffered more casualties in Afghanistan than in Iraq.
As of Tuesday, 11 U.S. service members had died in Iraq and 20 in Afghanistan in July, according to icasualties.org, which tracks coalition casualties in both wars.
If the July statistics hold, they'll mark the lowest American military death toll in Iraq, and the second highest toll in Afghanistan, after June, when 27 U.S. troops were killed there and 29 Americans were killed in Iraq.
In all, 29 NATO and U.S. service members have been killed in Afghanistan this month.
The American military is debating shifting more troops from Iraq to Afghanistan and expanding its counterinsurgency strategy there. Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that the military can't send more troops to Afghanistan unless it draws down more in Iraq, despite the surge of violence around Kabul and southern Afghanistan.
"I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," Mullen said earlier this month at a briefing at the Pentagon. "Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."
Some in the Pentagon have suggested that the U.S. send a strategic reserve unit of Marines based in Kuwait. On Tuesday, Geoff Morrell, a Pentagon spokesman, said that while there were "pockets of problems we are concerned about" in Afghanistan, the situation wasn't yet dire enough to send a unit that usually was called up as a last resort.
The numbers suggest that the biggest threat to U.S. troops in Iraq is Sunni Muslim extremists, not Shiite Muslim militiamen. In Afghanistan, the threat is from Taliban fighters, who've reorganized and are using the same kinds of explosives to target coalition forces that once dominated Iraq's landscape.
Of the 11 deaths in Iraq, two were soldiers who were kidnapped nearly a year ago and whose bodies were found July 9 in Jurf al Shakur, south of Baghdad. One midshipman died in a nonhostile incident. The remaining eight died in predominantly Sunni areas, places where the U.S. military thinks that the group al Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni extremists are trying to reconstitute.
In Afghanistan, 16 soldiers were killed either by explosives or rocket-propelled grenades, nine of them in an attack on an outpost in Kunar province. The remaining four died in nonhostile incidents.
In Iraq, violence is at its lowest level since March 2004. Earlier this month, the last of the five "surge" brigades left, leaving about 140,000 American troops in Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in the country, has said that he'll consider further withdrawals this fall.
In an interview earlier this week with McClatchy, Petraeus said that it was premature to declare victory in Iraq. Sunni and Shiite extremists are trying to reconstitute themselves, and the Iraqi military will need American support for some time, he said.
The U.S. military began supporting Iraq in an offensive Tuesday in Diyala province, one of Iraq's remaining hot spots, composed of nearly all of Iraq's sects and ethnic groups. That could lead to a spike in American deaths next month.
Petraeus, who this fall will become the commander of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is expected to employ his counterinsurgency approach — which many attribute to the dramatic security turnaround in Iraq — against the Taliban.
More troops in Afghanistan may not be enough, however. The country's tribal system is more complex, its terrain is more rugged and the coalition structure is more complicated than in Iraq, and Taliban and al Qaida fighters have a haven in neighboring Pakistan and are sustained in part by profits from the opium trade. Only 30,000 troops will fall under Petraeus' command there; the rest are under NATO's authority.
Last year, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, roughly 2,200 troops, to southern Afghanistan to bolster struggling British forces. But the Pentagon has stressed that the deployment was an "extraordinary, one-time" commitment.
In all, 4,124 American service members had been killed in Iraq as of Tuesday, and 561 have died in Afghanistan.
ON THE WEB
More from McClatchy:
McClatchy Newspapers 2008