KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The American military death toll in Afghanistan reached 1,000 at a time when President Obama’s strategy to turn back the Taliban is facing its greatest test — an ambitious campaign to win over a disgruntled population in the insurgents’ southern heartland.
More casualties are expected when the campaign kicks into high gear this summer. The results may determine the outcome of a nearly nine-year conflict that became “Obama’s war” after he decided to shift the fight against Islamist militancy from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Afghan insurgents find sanctuary.
The grim milestone was reached when NATO reported that a service member was killed Friday in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan. The statement did not identify the victim or give the nationality. U.S. spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said the service member was American — the 32nd U.S. war death this month by an Associated Press count.
Already the new focus on the once-forgotten Afghan war has come at a heavy price. More than 430 of the U.S. dead were killed after Obama took office in January 2009.
The list of American service members killed in combat in Afghanistan begins with Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio, Texas, a 31-year-old career Special forces soldier ambushed on Jan. 4, 2002, after attending a meeting with Afghan leaders in Khost province. He left a wife and two children. The base where a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees last December bears his name.
For many of the more than 94,000 U.S. service members in Afghanistan, the 1,000-mark passed without fanfare.
Capt. Nick Ziemba of Wilbraham, Mass., serving with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment in southern Afghanistan, said 1,000 was an arbitrary number and would have no impact on troop morale or operations.
“We’re going to continue to work,” he said.
The AP bases its tally on Defense Department reports of deaths suffered as a direct result of the Afghan conflict, including personnel assigned to units in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Other news organizations count deaths suffered by service members assigned elsewhere as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The grim milestone comes midway between the president’s decision last December to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan and a gut check on the war’s progress that he has promised by the end of the year.
After a long and wrenching conflict in Iraq — which has claimed nearly 4,400 American military lives — Mr. Obama has promised not to be backed into an open-ended war in Afghanistan. He has insisted that some U.S. troops will come home beginning in July 2011.
That has not been enough to satisfy his anti-war supporters. At the same time, mid-2011 may be too soon to turn the tide.
As casualties rise, the slide in overall support for the war may accelerate.
A majority of Americans — 52 percent — say the war is not worth the cost. The negative assessment in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll followed a brief rise in support for the war after Mr. Obama refocused the U.S. war plan last year.
In an AP-GfK Poll in March, the public was about split: 50 percent said they opposed the war and 46 percent favored it. That was within the poll’s margin of error.
In the same poll, 57 percent said they would oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan and 49 percent approved of the job Mr. Obama is doing on Afghanistan. That’s equal to his overall approval rating and one of the higher approval ratings he gets on any issue.
Those figures could change dramatically depending on the outcome of the coming operation in Kandahar, the biggest city in the south, with about a half million people, and the Taliban’s former spiritual headquarters. U.S. commanders believe Kandahar is the key to the ethnic Pashtun south, the main theater in the war.
America’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said last week that the southern campaign is the key to persuading Afghans to reject the Taliban, take greater control of their own security and support the central government in Kabul.
Associated Press writers Anne Gearan in Washington, Mirwais Khan and Christopher Torchia in Kandahar province, Amir Shah in Kabul and Monika Mathur at the AP’s News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.
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