August has become the deadliest month yet for U.S. forces in the nearly 10-year-old war in Afghanistan, increasing pressure on the Obama administration to bring troops home sooner rather than later.
The 66 U.S. service members killed this month eclipses the previous record of 65 killed in July 2010, according to an Associated Press tally. Nearly half the August deaths occurred when insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter Aug. 6, killing 30 American troops, mostly elite Navy SEALs.
Violence is being reported across Afghanistan despite the U.S.-led coalition's drive to rout insurgents from their strongholds in the south.
Though American military officials predicted high casualties this summer as the Taliban try to come back after recent offensives, the grim milestone increases pressure on the Obama administration to withdraw U.S. forces quickly.
The military has begun to implement President Barack Obama's order to withdraw the 33,000 extra troops he dispatched to the war. He ordered 10,000 out this year and another 23,000 withdrawn by the summer of 2012, leaving about 68,000 U.S. troops on the ground. Although major combat units are not expected to start leaving until late fall, two National Guard regiments comprising about 1,000 soldiers started going home last month.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set the end of 2014 as the target date for Afghan police and soldiers to take the lead in protecting and defending the country, leaving international combat forces to go home or take on more support roles.
In a speech in Minnesota on Tuesday, Obama honored all the troops who have been killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"As our mission transitions from combat to support, Afghans will take responsibility for their own security and the longest war in American history will come to a responsible end," Obama said at the American Legion's national convention in Minneapolis. "For our troops and military families who have sacrificed so much, this means relief from an unrelenting decade of operations."
Aside from the 30 Americans killed in the Chinook crash southwest of Kabul, 23 died this month in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in southern Afghanistan, the main focus of Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces. The remaining 13 were killed in eastern Afghanistan.
Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, said the recent spike in violence does not tell policymakers much on its own, yet could still have the effect of intensifying the sense of frustration about the war in Congress and elsewhere. Some U.S. lawmakers see the war's duration and cost as a "nuisance" in a time of tight U.S. budgets, he said. "That reinforces the negative," he said.
Jeff Dressler, a senior research analyst studying Afghanistan at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said August's high casualty count must be put in context.
"We are right now in the height of the fighting season. Despite progress in Helmand and Kandahar, there continues to be tough fighting down there as coalition forces consolidate their gains and transition areas of those provinces to Afghan lead," he said, referring to Afghan police and soldiers eventually taking responsibility for security in certain areas.
"We have to look at what commanders were saying all along throughout the course of the year — that we're really not going to know until October, at the end of this fighting season, how much progress we've had," Dressler said.
Besides the 66 Americans killed so far this month, the NATO coalition suffered the loss of 14 other troops: two British, four French, one New Zealander, one Australian, one Polish and five others whose nationalities have not yet been disclosed.
So far this year, 403 international service members, including at least 299 Americans, have been killed in Afghanistan.
Associated Press Writer Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.