KABUL — U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have risen to 65 so far this year, up from 36 over the first five months of 2008 _ though U.S. and coalition troops have also killed hundreds more militants, an Associated Press tally shows.
As newly arriving Marines enter the violent Afghan south _ the spiritual home of the Taliban and the country's major drug-producing region _ the military said Tuesday that U.S. deaths will likely increase even further this summer.
"We're doing everything we can to ensure the deaths occur on the militants' side, but there is a potential there will be an increase in U.S. deaths," said Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.
In Washington, the U.S general chosen to take over as commander of American and NATO troops in Afghanistan said he believes the war is "winnable, but I don't think it will be easily winnable." Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal said at his confirmation hearing that avoiding civilian casualties is key to success.
Civilian deaths, long a contentious issue in Afghanistan, are also higher this year because of militant attacks and U.S. and NATO operations.
The latest U.S. death came Tuesday during an insurgent attack in the east that killed one soldier. On Monday, two roadside bombs ripped through two military vehicles in the same convoy, killing four Americans in Wardak, one province west of Kabul.
U.S. counter-IED experts say they expect IED attacks _ roadside bombs and suicide attacks _ to rise 50 percent this year, contributing to the increase in casualties.
The death Tuesday brought to 65 the number of U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan this year, according to an AP count based on military figures. Not counting the five deaths in June, U.S. deaths are up 66 percent the first five months of the year over the same period last year.
President Barack Obama has ordered 21,000 more troops into Afghanistan to bolster the roughly 40,000 already in the country. U.S. officials predict a rise in violence this summer as the troops enter militant-controlled areas where they haven't previously operated.
Sami Kovanen, a security expert in Kabul, said casualties among international troops are rising partly because Taliban attacks are becoming more effective. He said insurgents now have better _ and more _ weapons, and he too predicted violence would peak this summer.
"We will see a steady increase of violence and attacks, which will be at the highest level during July-August, with an additional spike during the election," said Kovanen, of Tundra Strategies. The country holds presidential elections on Aug. 20.
The increase in violence has come at a high cost for militants as well. Insurgent deaths are up 90 percent so far this year, from 815 over the first five months of 2008, according to the AP count, which relies on statements from the Afghan government and international militaries.
Julian said more militants are fighting in Afghanistan now.
"And primarily it's more activity in areas where we haven't had a permanent presence and directed activities at eliminating Taliban and al-Qaida leadership and their immediate associates," Julian said.
"I think there were quite a number (of insurgents) that have been there for a while that simply haven't been engaged, and now there are head-on confrontations. And I think we're going to see quite a bit more in southern Afghanistan, where the drug resources come from," he said.
In southern Afghanistan on Tuesday, British forces announced that they had killed an alleged Taliban commander called Mullah Mansur the previous day. The British described him as a major figure in the insurgency who was behind several bloody suicide bombings.
Last month, U.S. and Afghan forces killed 60 militants and seized 102 tons of opium poppy seeds, drugs and chemicals during an operation in Marjah in Helmand province. NATO and U.S. officials have said they will increase operations against the country's drug syndicate. The Taliban and drug lords pocket hundreds of millions of dollars from the trade.
Thousands of Marines are now entering Helmand province, the world's largest opium-poppy producing region. British forces have previously been the primary force in Helmand.
In Washington, McChrystal stressed the importance of minimizing Afghan civilian casualties as allied forces apply counterinsurgency tactics designed to gain the confidence and support of the local population.
"How we conduct operations is vital to success. This is a critical point. It may be THE critical point," McChrystal stressed. "This is a struggle for the support of the Afghan people. Our willingness to operate in ways that minimize casualties or damage _ even when doing so makes our task more difficult _ is essential to our credibility. I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept."
The AP count shows that U.S., NATO and Afghan forces have killed 173 civilians this year, compared with 26 the same period last year. The tally also shows that militants have killed 242 civilians this year, down from 343 the first five months last year.
However, 126 civilian deaths are in dispute in the AP count. The Afghan government says 140 civilians died in U.S. airstrikes May 4-5 in Farah province, but the U.S. says that 20 to 30 civilians died. The AP count attributed 30 deaths to U.S. forces from that battle and labeled 110 deaths as being in dispute.