An American soldier returning from a patrol became the 100th fatality in the U.S. military’s two-year Afghan campaign when his vehicle collided with a truck, highlighting the dangers facing U.S. forces in a nation roiled by a stubborn Taliban insurgency.
The toll pales in comparison to the tally of American dead in Iraq, which is approaching 500. But it is still a striking number in a force that is a small fraction of the size of the 130,000-strong U.S. contingent in Iraq.
The U.S. military did not identify the soldier in a brief statement issued Monday. It said he was involved in an accident southwest of the Afghan capital Friday night and died of his injuries the next morning.
“His death underscores the dangers inherent in Operation Enduring Freedom, and our condolences go out to his family,” the statement said, without giving further details.
As in Iraq, the number of U.S. casualties in Afghanistan has continued to rise, undermining claims by American leaders that the military victory has brought stability to Afghans left destitute by a quarter-century of war.
Post-war death tolls mount
Only 16 Americans died in the lightning war that drove the Taliban from power at the end of 2001 for providing a refuge and base for Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. The rest of the Americans died after the Taliban’s defeat.
Likewise in Iraq, most of the deaths — both combat and non-combat — have occurred since President Bush declared an end to major fighting on May 1. A roadside bomb explosion Monday killed the 495th American service member since the Iraq war began in March.
Pentagon spokesman James Turner confirmed that the weekend death brought the total from Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan to 100 — 30 from hostile fire and 70 “non-hostile” casualties.
When measured against the large disparity in forces, the tally belies conventional wisdom that Afghanistan has become a far safer place to operate. The U.S. provides 9,000 of the 11,000-member coalition troops stationed in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government said Monday it “honored” America’s sacrifice to free the country from al-Qaida and the Taliban and appealed for continued international support.
“At an important time like this, Afghanistan needs all the support that the international community can provide, in all areas, in order to make its progress completely irreversible,” said Jawed Luddin, President Hamid Karzai’s spokesman.
Despite the rapid victory more than two years ago, bin Laden has evaded capture and an international manhunt has failed to find him. He is believed to be hiding somewhere along the rugged, porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, possibly sheltered by tribesman who were sympathetic to the Taliban.
The total of 100 includes deaths in other parts of Operation Enduring Freedom, such as a helicopter crash in the Philippines nearly two years ago that killed 10 American soldiers.
But it excludes CIA agents such as the two contractors killed in an Oct. 25 ambush near a U.S. base near the eastern border town of Shkin, which American soldiers have dubbed “the most evil place in Afghanistan.” Johnny “Mike” Spann, the first American killed in combat here, in November 2001, also was a CIA employee, and is not included in the total.
Afghans victims of insurgency
Afghans are the chief victims of the insurgency. At least 40 people have died in an outburst of violence since the ratification of the country’s first post-Taliban constitution on Jan. 4.
In the worst incident, 15 children were killed by a bomb in the southern city of Kandahar on Jan. 6 that U.S. and Afghan officials have blamed on the Taliban. On Monday, dozens of suspected Taliban fighters armed with assault rifles attacked a police checkpoint in the southwest, killing four policemen, a provincial governor said.
The last U.S. soldier killed in action in Afghanistan died Nov. 14 when his vehicle struck a land mine during a sweep for insurgents in the snowy mountains in northeastern Afghanistan.
In November, five U.S. soldiers died in a helicopter crash near the main U.S. base at Bagram, north of Kabul, apparently due to mechanical failure.
U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said the attrition rate had come down since the war, and that he hoped it would continue to decrease even if there is an upsurge in violence in the spring.
Casualties will be “hopefully low,” he said. “We will continue aggressive patrolling and aggressive reconstruction.”
In a major change of strategy, U.S. security teams are deploying for the first time to provincial capitals across the south and east, hoping to open the way for some of the promised $2 billion in U.S. aid.
The joint military-civilian effort is the latest bid by American officials to shore up Afghanistan in time for landmark elections planned for June.
The United Nations has welcomed the move, but warns that the elections cannot go ahead unless security improves.
The new drive will put American troops on the streets of some of the most hostile towns in the country for the first time, and U.S. commanders have forecast a sharp reaction from the enemy.