WASHINGTON - Five Army soldiers and a Marine were killed in an ambush in eastern Afghanistan, military officials said yesterday, raising the US death toll in the country to at least 101, according to the Associated Press, in a year that has become the deadliest since the war began six years ago.
The six service members, who were serving as part of NATO's peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, were on a foot patrol Friday with Afghan soldiers when they came under fire from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades, alliance officials said.
Three Afghan soldiers also were killed in the ambush, which NATO officials described as a complex attack that came from multiple positions.
The previous high for annual US casualties came in 2005, when 99 were killed, according to icasualties.org, an independent group that monitors US and coalition war deaths. Last year, 98 US military personnel died as part of the Afghan mission.
The fatal ambush in Afghanistan came the same week in which 2007 became the deadliest year for US forces in Iraq as well. In Iraq, however, American casualties have dropped dramatically over the last four months.
In Afghanistan, violence has risen over the course of the year as a resurgent Taliban, which is believed to have rebuilt itself in bases along the Afghan-Pakistan border, has launched attacks in eastern and southern provinces.
Last week, a rare suicide bombing in northern Afghanistan killed at least 68 people, including six lawmakers, in the deadliest such attack since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001.
Senior military officials have said there have been waves of attacks around the key southern city of Kandahar, long a Taliban stronghold, including a major attack there earlier this month.
But at a Pentagon news conference Friday, before the latest US deaths were made public, a top American commander in Afghanistan said the number of such frontal attacks had been decreasing in recent months, even as the number of roadside bombs and suicide attacks were on the rise.
"The direct conflict that occurs, what we call 'troops in contact,' is actually decreasing as the Taliban suffers defeats," said Army Brigadier General Robert E. Livingston Jr., the officer in charge of training Afghan security forces. "It again reflects that desperation, because we're seeing more and more soft targets attacked versus military installation or coalition forces."
The rash of violence in Afghanistan comes amid growing concern over the NATO-led mission there.
US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has repeatedly called on European and other allies to do more to shore up the operation despite the fact that troop levels there are at all-time highs. There are approximately 54,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, about half of them American.
US officials have been equally frustrated over neighboring Pakistan's failure to tamp down Taliban and Al Qaeda activities on its side of the border. Gates said he was concerned the recent turmoil in Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf has declared emergency rule, could further hamper Pakistani antiterrorism efforts.
US commanders insist that there have been no noticeable changes along the border.
Army Lieutenant General Carter Ham, the head of operations for the US military's Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently that military planners were expecting stepped-up violence ahead of the winter snow, which traditionally end the Afghan fighting season.
The Friday ambush was the biggest loss of US life in Afghanistan since February, when eight were killed in the crash of a Chinook helicopter. Alliance officials said eight NATO and 11 Afghan soldiers were wounded in the ambush.
Dana M. Perino, White House press secretary, took note of the US deaths in Afghanistan while accompanying President Bush in Crawford, Texas.
"Our troops are facing a ferocious and determined enemy - and our strategy is to take the fight to them, to be on the offense," Perino said. "And because of their courage and bravery, we have sustained casualties. The president greatly appreciates the sacrifice of our military and their families, and he will express that tomorrow as he honors our nation's veterans."
After months of rising violence, President Hamid Karzai has been trying to reach out to Taliban militants in an effort to find a political settlement.
He has invited insurgents to take part in negotiations and even join his administration.
His overtures have received varied responses from Taliban factions.
US forces have two combat brigades - more than 8,000 troops - in eastern Afghanistan this year, up from one last year. The United States has about 25,000 forces in Afghanistan today - 15,000 under NATO and 10,000 under the US-led coalition.
Launched in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, the war in Afghanistan quickly ousted Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors, and appeared to have been a swift military victory.
But insurgent attacks - advanced ambushes and suicide and roadside bombs - have risen sharply the last two years, and analysts say the counterinsurgency battle that US and NATO forces face might take a decade or more to win.
Critics of the Bush administration say the Pentagon turned its attention away from Afghanistan during the buildup to the invasion in Iraq, leaving the military with too few resources here to back up that initial victory with an adequate security presence.
More than 5,800 people, mostly militants, have died in Afghanistan due to insurgency-related violence this year, also a record, according to an Associated Press count based on figures from Western and Afghan officials