KABUL, Afghanistan – The month began with a fatal roadside bombing and ended with word that an American had died of wounds suffered in a firefight. After nearly eight years of warfare in Afghanistan, July proved by far the deadliest month yet for U.S. troops and their foreign allies.
Bombs and rocket attacks, ambushes and aviation accidents killed at least 70 foreign troops in July, including 42 Americans. Previously, the highest monthly U.S. toll was 28, in June 2008, according to the Web site icasualties.org.
July was also the worst month for Britain, the most important U.S. ally in Afghanistan, since the 1980s Falklands war. Twenty-two British soldiers died, spurring soul-searching in a country where a recent poll suggested that a majority of the public considers the Afghan war unwinnable.
Analysts and military officials cited a web of factors in the record death toll, including a major American military offensive in the south and a parallel push by British troops.
Also driving the increased casualty count is the growing U.S. troop presence, Western forays into previously Taliban-dominated areas and a determined, resilient insurgency.
“It’s a strong example of the asymmetric nature of Taliban and insurgent tactics and procedures,” said Seth Jones, an Afghanistan expert with the RAND Corp. “There’s been a decision to scatter and target NATO forces using tried-and-true mujahedeen tactics.”
About two-thirds of the coalition deaths were caused by improvised explosive devices or IEDs, the insurgents’ weapon of choice in a fight against a much more powerful enemy.
Although most bombs are relatively unsophisticated devices made with commonplace ingredients like fertilizer, commanders say the Taliban and other militants draw a battlefield advantage from the country’s vast distances. Convoys travel among far-flung bases by road, and the insurgents keep careful watch on their comings and goings.
American and British offensives in Helmand province, a center of Afghanistan’s drug trade and a longtime Taliban stronghold, account for most of the combat casualties. More than 4,000 Marines are taking part in Operation Khanjar, or Strike of the Sword, which began July 2.
The east, which borders Pakistan’s wild tribal areas, remains subject to large-scale infiltration by fighters under the command of Pakistan-based insurgent leaders like Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose home base in North Waziristan has been little touched by Pakistani military feints into the border zone.
A key factor in the U.S. troop buildup, which will increase the American force in the country to 68,000 by year’s end, is the desire to safeguard Afghanistan’s Aug. 20 presidential and provincial council elections. The Taliban have vowed to try to disrupt the polling.
July marked the first full month of command in Afghanistan by U.S. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who assumed control of U.S. and NATO forces in mid-June. He is seeking to change the dynamic of the conflict by reducing civilian deaths and establishing trust between Western forces and beleaguered local officials.