Bombs and bullets killed seven American troops on Monday, the deadliest day for U.S. forces in Afghanistan in nearly a year — and a sign that the war being fought in the Taliban heartland of the south and east could now be expanding north.
Separately, Taliban militants claimed on a militant Web site that they were holding an American soldier whom the U.S. military says insurgents might have captured last week. The Taliban statement, however, did not include any proof, such as a picture or the soldier's name.
Four of the deaths Monday came in an attack on a team of U.S. military trainers in the relatively peaceful north, bringing into focus the question of whether the U.S. is committing enough troops to secure a country larger than Iraq in both population and land mass.
On a visit to Moscow, President Barack Obama said it's too soon to measure the success of his new strategy in Afghanistan. He said the U.S. can take another look at the situation after the country's presidential elections on Aug. 20.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said in some respects, progress has been "insignificant" in Afghanistan. He said it's hard to say how quickly the situation will improve.
Obama has ordered 21,000 additional American troops to this country, mainly in the south where Taliban militants have made a violent comeback after a U.S.-led coalition topped them from power in late 2001. The U.S. expects 68,000 troops here by year's end, double last year's total but still half as many as now in Iraq.
The four American soldiers killed in the north died in a roadside bombing of their vehicle in Kunduz province, said Navy Chief Petty Officer Brian Naranjo, a U.S. military spokesman. The soldiers were training Afghan forces, he said.
Two Americans were killed in a roadside blast in southern Afghanistan, Naranjo said. And another American soldier died of wounds in a Monday firefight with militants in the east, a U.S. military spokesman said.
There were no further details on the incidents in the south and the east.
It was the deadliest day for American troops in Afghanistan since July 13, 2008, when 10 soldiers were killed — nine of them when militants using small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades attacked a remote outpost in the village of Wanat near the Pakistani border.
The Taliban claim about holding a captured U.S. soldier came six days after a soldier was noticed missing during a routine check of his unit June 30. His body armor and weapon were found on the base.
Two U.S. defense sources have said the soldier "just walked off" post with three Afghans after he finished working. They had no explanation for why he left.
In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, thousands of U.S. Marines continued with 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 Monday.
"This is the first time coalition forces have had a sustained presence so far south in the Helmand River valley. Khan Neshin had been a Taliban stronghold for several years before Afghan, and coalition forces arrived and began discussions with local leaders several days ago," the statement added.
In the southern province of Kandahar, meanwhile, 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.
Those wounded near the gates of Kandahar Airfield included 12 civilians and two Afghan soldiers, said Gen. Sher Mohammad Zazai, the top military commander for southern Afghanistan.
As the conflict intensifies, U.S. forces are under pressure to minimize civilian deaths in military operations. In an effort to reduce civilian losses, the new commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued guidelines ordering troops to "scrutinize and limit" the use of airstrikes against residential compounds, which Taliban fighters often use as hideouts.
McChrystal says he hopes to produce a cultural shift in the military so that his troops' first priority will be protecting Afghan civilians, not using massive fire power. McChrystal's guidelines went into effect last week, and officials released a declassified version Monday.
The three directives are that airstrikes must be authorized and very 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 mosques or other religious sites, though this is already U.S. 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 the statement.
|Afghan National Army soldiers and U.S. Marines patrol in the Nawa district of Afghanistan's Helmand province.|
Civilian deaths caused by U.S. and NATO military operations have long been a source of friction between President Hamid Karzai and the West. Such deaths have deeply angered Afghan villagers, eroding support for the Afghan government and international mission.
In the latest accusation, Daud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the governor of Helmand province, said a rocket hit a civilian house in Nad Ali district Sunday, killing four civilians and wounding four others.
Noor Mohammad, from Khoshal Keli village where the rocket hit, alleged that the rocket was launched by foreign forces.
NATO was not immediately available to comment on the report. British troops have been operating in the area.
A NATO helicopter, meanwhile, made an emergency landing in the southern Zabul province, a spokesman for the military alliance said. There were casualties among those on board, but Lt. Commander Chris Hall did not have details. The incident was not caused by insurgent fire, Hall said.