- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

UPDATED:

Eight U.S. troops died Tuesday in twin insurgent attacks in southern Afghanistan, making October the deadliest month for Americans in Afghanistan since the war started in 2001.

U.S. forces spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician told The Associated Press that seven Americans and an Afghan civilian died while patrolling in armored vehicles. He said the eighth American died in a separate attack, also while on patrol in a military vehicle.

Capt. Adam Weece, a spokesman for American forces in the south, said both attacks occurred in Kandahar province. In Washington, a U.S. defense official told the AP that the deaths occurred in bombings and that one of them was followed by an intense firefight with insurgents who attacked after an initial bomb exploded.

The deaths Tuesday brought the toll of U.S. troops killed in October to 55. The deadliest previous month in the history of the 8-year war was in August when 51 troops died. Since the U.S. began military operations in Afghanistan, 833 U.S. troops have died from fighting in the country, according to the Web site iCasualties.org.

On Monday, 11 U.S. troops and three agents of the Drug Enforcement Administration died in helicopter crashes.

The deadly toll comes as the White House debates the merits of sending more troops to Afghanistan — a decision that may be effected by negative domestic reaction to the mounting numbers of war dead.

White House deliberations — which continued Monday in a sixth high-level strategy session in the past month — have also been affected by the political fallout of Aug. 20 Afghan elections, in which international monitors reported that supporters of Afghan President Hamid Karzai fabricated as many as a third of the votes he received.

Abdullah Abdullah, Mr. Karzai’s main rival, told reporters in Kabul on Monday that he would not accept a runoff until officials implicated in fraud in the first round had been fired and several ministers who campaigned for Mr. Karzai were suspended.

Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, who helped convince Mr. Karzai to accept a runoff election scheduled for Nov. 7, said Monday, “I am convinced President Karzai understands the need to make some changes” in his government to justify continued U.S. military and civilian involvement.”

Mr. Kerry told the Council on Foreign Relations that Mr. Karzai himself had raised stories about alleged links to drug trafficking by one of the Afghan leader’s brothers and was aware of widespread complaints about corruption and inefficiency in some ministries and provincial governments.

Mr. Kerry said Mr. Karzai would not announce changes before the runoff to avoid antagonizing potential supporters.

Mr. Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said President Obama was “right” to take time to review strategy toward Afghanistan. While “there are no great options,” Mr. Kerry said, it was possible to stabilize the country and prevent it from becoming a haven again for al Qaeda if the U.S. can speed up training of Afghan forces, increase U.S. civilian involvement and make sure there are adequate local leaders to partner with U.S. and other foreign forces.

Without specifying how much of a surge he thought would be appropriate, Mr. Kerry suggested that sending large additional numbers of U.S. troops to Afghanistan was not the answer.

“It’s not how many troops,” Mr. Kerry said. “It’s what they do.”

He said reports that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, wants a major surge in U.S. forces “reaches too far, too fast.”

Gen. McChrystal understands the need for “a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area,” Mr. Kerry said.

Mr. Obama, hours after presiding over his war council at the White House, told a crowd of 3,000 sailors and Marines in Florida that he will not rush a decision.

Criticized by former Vice President Dick Cheney for “dithering” over Afghanistan, Mr. Obama appeared in front of an enormous American flag and three rows of Navy sailors in dress whites. He spoke to a large crowd in a hangar at Naval Air Station Jacksonville.

“While I will never hesitate to use force to protect the American people or our vital interests, I also promise you this — and this is very important as we consider our next steps in Afghanistan: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm’s way,” Mr. Obama said.

“I won’t risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary. And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt,” he said. “Because you deserve the strategy, the clear mission, the defined goals, as well as the equipment and support you need to get the job done.”

The president has given no signal whether he plans to increase U.S. troops beyond the 68,000 already slated to be in Afghanistan by the end of the year, or whether he’ll make a decision before the runoff election.

The crowd in Florida gave the president an enthusiastic reception, though there were pockets of troops that appeared more reserved and gave only paltry applause.

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said the speech was “a chance to say thank you.”

Mr. Obama also met with Gold Star families, the relatives of U.S. troops killed in the line of duty, before his speech.

The administration is weighing a series of options from Gen. McChrystal that range from sending no additional forces to deploying as many as 80,000 more troops.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gave Gen. McChrystal a boost over the weekend, saying he supports the counterinsurgency strategy the general has proposed.

“The only way to ensure that Afghanistan does not become, once again, a safe haven for terrorists is if it is made strong enough to resist the insurgency as well,” Mr. Rasmussen said at a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Slovakia.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his advisers have proposed a more limited mission focusing on counterterrorism.

A military intelligence officer working on the Afghan insurgency, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to the press, said Mr. Obama “has made it clear that he does not want to commit to more combat troops until we see how the … election plays out.”

• Jon Ward contributed to this report from Jacksonville.