More U.S. troop deaths raise questions about strategy

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 1, 2011 

WASHINGTON — June was the deadliest month in nearly a year for U.S. service members in Afghanistan and Iraq even as the United States said that improved security in both countries allows it to reduce troops in those war zones.

Sixty U.S. service members were killed in the wars in June, from hostile and nonhostile incidents. The last time the United States lost that many troops in a month was last July, when 65 American service members died in Afghanistan and four were killed in Iraq.

The rise comes as Iraqi leaders are weighing whether to ask for some U.S. troops to stay beyond their scheduled departure at the end of the year. And it puts the Obama administration in the uncomfortable position of addressing rising combat deaths nearly a year after declaring the end of U.S. "combat operations" in Iraq.

In Afghanistan, where President Barack Obama plans to bring home 33,000 "surge" troops by the end of next summer, nearly half the fatalities occurred in confrontations with the Taliban and other militant groups. The deaths raise questions about whether the U.S.-led coalition has made sustainable security gains in any part of the country as the Taliban appear to be attempting to retake ground lost during the American troop surge in the south, which began in 2009.

In Iraq, 14 U.S. service members were killed in combat in June — a three-year high, according to icasualties.org, which tracks those statistics — and there was one noncombat death.

Most of the attacks came from foes launching weapons from a distance, the deadliest of which was a rocket attack Wednesday on a military base a few hundred yards from the Iraq-Iran border in central Iraq's Wasit province. The attack killed three American troops and wounded seven.

Among U.S. officials, there's debate over the reason for the spike. U.S. officials in Iraq said they suspected that Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim extremist groups were responsible for the deaths; indeed, all the combat deaths occurred in Shiite-dominated areas.

At the Pentagon, some military officials speculate that the attacks are by Iraqis who are trying to kill Americans before the troops are scheduled to leave at the end of the year. They think those Iraqis are seeking to gain credibility among militia groups by claiming to have killed Americans.

In Afghanistan, 37 U.S. troops were killed in combat in June, and eight died of noncombat injuries. Another 20 NATO troops also died.

Nearly half the troop deaths occurred in southern Afghanistan's restive Helmand and Kandahar provinces, which are home to the Taliban and received the bulk of surge forces. In nearly half of those deaths, American troops were killed by small-arms fire, suggesting that the Taliban are still fighting for control of the region despite U.S. claims that they've been rooted out.

Military commanders said they'd predicted a rise in troop casualties in Afghanistan with the start of the spring fighting season and the Taliban eager to regain areas they'd controlled just months ago.

In a news briefing last month, Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Toolan Jr., the commanding general of Regional Command Southwest, said that despite greater casualties, Afghan security forces would be ready to control key communities in southern Afghanistan.

Toolan said the coalition was planning to pass control of security in the capital of Helmand province, Lashkar Gah, later this month. The rest of the province will see Afghan forces take the lead beginning in January, he said.

Toolan said the summer would be deadly.

"We know that that's going to be a pretty good battle for the next couple of months as we work our way in . . . providing security for the people who live there and strengthening their Afghan local police efforts," Toolan said.

"We want to maintain that level of stability. And I'm pretty sure, pretty confident we'll be able to do that, but it won't be without a fight. But it will not be as big a fight, in my estimation, as it has been in the past."

(Roy Gutman contributed to this report from Baghdad.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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