7 US troops die in Afghanistan

Year’s highest toll comes as forces expand to north

By Fisnik Abrashi
Associated Press / July 7, 2009
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KABUL - Bombs and bullets killed seven American troops yesterday, the deadliest day for US forces in Afghanistan in nearly a year - a sign the war being fought in the Taliban heartland of the south and east could now be expanding north.

Separately, Taliban militants claimed they were holding an American soldier who the US military says might have been captured last week. The Taliban statement did not include any proof, such as a picture or the soldier’s name.

Four of the deaths came in an attack on military trainers in the north, raising the question of whether the United States is committing enough troops to secure a country larger than Iraq, in both population and land mass.

In Moscow, President Obama said it’s too soon to measure the success of his Afghanistan strategy. He said the United States can take another look after the country’s Aug. 20 presidential elections.

Obama has ordered 21,000 additional troops to the country, mainly in the south, where Taliban militants have made a violent comeback since a US-led coalition toppled them in late 2001. The United States expects 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by year’s end, double last year’s total but half as many as are in Iraq today.

The four US soldiers killed in the north died in a roadside bombing of their vehicle in Kunduz Province, a military spokesman said. They were training Afghan forces.

Two Americans were killed in a roadside blast in southern Afghanistan, and another American soldier died of wounds in a firefight with militants in the east.

It was the deadliest day for US troops in Afghanistan since July 13, 2008, when 10 soldiers were killed.

The Taliban claim about holding a US soldier came six days after a soldier was noticed to be missing. His body armor and weapon were found on the base. Two US defense sources have said the soldier “just walked off’’ with three Afghans after he finished working. They had no explanation about why he left.

In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, Marines continued their anti-Taliban offensive in Helmand Province. Some 500 Marines out of 4,000 participating in the operation moved into the Khan Neshin area, a Marine statement said.

In the southern province of Kandahar, a suicide car bomber blew himself up outside the outer gate of the main NATO base in the region, killing two civilians and wounding 14 other people.

As the conflict intensifies, US forces are under pressure to minimize civilian deaths. The new commander of US and NATO forces, General Stanley McChrystal, ordered troops to “scrutinize and limit’’ the use of air strikes against residential compounds, which Taliban fighters often use as hideouts.

McChrystal said he hopes to produce a shift in the military so that his troops’ first priority will be protecting civilians.

His three directives are that air strikes must be authorized and limited but can be used in self-defense if troops’ lives are at risk; troops must be accompanied by Afghan forces before they enter residences; and troops cannot go into or fire upon religious sites, though this is already US policy.

“We must avoid the trap of winning tactical victories - but suffering strategic defeats - by causing civilian casualties or excessive damage and thus alienating the people,’’ McChrystal said in a statement.