By Laura King, Los Angeles Times, July 7, 2009
Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan -- Seven American service members were killed Monday in Afghanistan, the largest one-day death toll here in months for U.S. troops.
The deaths -- two in the south, four in the north and one in the east -- reflected in part the intensifying conflict in a large swath of the south, where a major U.S. offensive is underway. But they also signaled Taliban insurgents' determination to push into areas that have been relatively quiet, such as Afghanistan's northern tier, and to keep up pressure on American forces in the east, which borders Pakistan's volatile tribal areas.
At least six of the deaths were caused by improvised explosive devices, or roadside bombs -- the insurgents' weapon of choice -- said a statement by NATO's International Security Assistance Force.
Afghan civilians again proved vulnerable to the violence. Two were killed when a suicide bomber attacked the outer gate of the sprawling North Atlantic Treaty Organization base at Kandahar, the alliance's main hub in the south. The area where the attacker struck was a gate widely used by Afghan workers entering the base, far from the main part of the military installation. Western troops are usually traveling in armored convoys when they pass through the base's outer ring of defenses.
The deaths of the four American troops in the north, in Kunduz province, when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, were unusual not only because the area suffers relatively few such attacks, but also because there are not many U.S. troops there. Most American military personnel are deployed in the south and east, both of which are centers of insurgent activity.
The troops who died in Kunduz had been involved in training Afghan security forces, U.S. military officials said.
In the east, a U.S. soldier died of injuries sustained in a firefight with militants, an American military spokesman said. Eastern Afghanistan had been the scene two days earlier of a tightly coordinated insurgent attack on a remote base that killed two American troops. On Monday, a Taliban website claimed responsibility for the capture of a U.S. soldier who was reported missing June 30 in the east.
No details were released about the two Americans killed in southern Afghanistan, but it appeared that they were not part of a 4,000-strong U.S. Marine Corps force seeking to assert control in the lower Helmand River valley. The offensive, which began last week, is described as the largest American-staged assault since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that drove the Taliban from power.
U.S. military officials have acknowledged that it will take some time to determine whether mistrustful tribal leaders and residents in Helmand province will accept the presence of the Marines, let alone welcome the American troops. Afghan officials in the province who allied themselves with the government and Western forces in the past often found themselves at the mercy of the Taliban whenever the attention of thinly spread coalition troops -- mostly British, until the arrival this spring and summer of about 8,000 U.S. Marines -- was diverted elsewhere.
As a centerpiece of the current offensive, the Marines, accompanied by about 600 Afghan troops, intend to set up small bases and hold the territory, all the while forging relationships with the local leadership, U.S. commanders have said.
In recent days, Marines have pushed as far south as the district of Khan Neshin, a longtime Taliban stronghold, the Marine Expeditionary Brigade-Afghanistan said in a statement. It said government control had been restored in the district for the first time in several years.