An American soldier who stepped on a land mine became the 200th U.S. military member to be killed in and around Afghanistan since the Taliban was ousted four years ago, officials reported Saturday.
This year has been the deadliest yet for the 21,000-strong U.S.-led coalition force, with 84 soldiers killed. The toll comes amid a major increase in insurgent violence that has left more than 1,300 people dead since March.
The latest American death came Friday while U.S. troops patrolled in a part of Helmand province that has been wracked by violence by Taliban-led rebels, a military statement said.
A spokeswoman, Sgt. Marina Evans, said it was not immediately clear whether the mine had been recently laid — and was meant as an attack on the patrol — or whether it was one of thousands around the country left from a quarter-century of war.
The soldier’s name was withheld pending notification of next of kin.
The statement quoted Brig. Gen. Jack Sterling, a deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition, as saying, “Its a sad day any time a comrade dies in this ongoing struggle.”
“While we mourn this loss, we will continue to work to ensure that Afghanistan remains a stable democracy,” he added.
According to Pentagon figures, 200 U.S. personnel have died in the Afghanistan region since the Taliban regime was toppled in late 2001, when it refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and stop offering haven to al-Qaida camps following the Sept. 11 terror attacks on the United States.
‘Big price to pay’
“Two hundred lives is a very big price to pay for a cause that we both share. ... We value the sacrifice they made for the people of Afghanistan and the people of the United States,” President Hamid Karzai’s chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, told The Associated Press in an interview last week when asked about the approaching toll.
“But one thing that we can be sure is: Those lives have not been lost in vain,” Ludin said.
But Karzai himself has been critical of the U.S. military lately, challenging the need for major military operations by foreign troops, saying there was no longer a major terrorist threat in Afghanistan.
His comments followed landmark legislative elections held relatively peacefully despite Taliban threats of violence.
Karzai’s optimistic views aren’t shared by U.S. military commanders, who say that they expect to be battling Taliban rebels well into next year and that the militants are recruiting younger fighters to bolster their numbers after suffering heavy losses in recent fighting.
Still, the burden of the fighting now shouldered by U.S. forces may soon decrease. An 11,000-soldier NATO-led peacekeeping force, already responsible for security in Afghanistan’s north and west, is gearing up to expand next year into the volatile south and east.
The move will allow the separate coalition force to reduce its size and focus on hunting down Osama and his allies, thought to be hiding in rugged mountains in the region.
U.S. Gen. B.B. Bell, commander of NATO’s Allied Land Component Command Headquarters, told AP in an interview Saturday while touring western Afghanistan that NATO troops were instrumental in keeping the peace during last month’s election.
He said the key to the peacekeeping force’s success was the large number of countries contributing troops.
“It does help the credibility of the mission,” Bell said. “Pulling together with all of the energy of 26 nations in helping reconstruct this country ... I think that sends a huge message.”