KABUL — Five U.S. troops died in attacks in southern Afghanistan, military officials said Friday, adding to this year's record death toll as American public support is dwindling for operations in the country that once hosted Osama bin Laden.
The Obama administration is debating whether to add still more troops to the 21,000-strong influx that began pouring into Afghanistan over the summer. Most of those have gone to the south, where they've been assailed by roadside bombs and ambushes as they battle to take back Taliban-controlled areas.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, told "60 Minutes" that the strength of the militant group took him by surprise when he arrived this summer.
"I think that in some areas that the breadth of the violence, the geographic spread of violence, is a little more than I would have gathered," he said in the interview to be broadcast on Sunday.
This has been the deadliest year for American troops since the 2001 invasion to oust the Islamic extremist Taliban. The five deaths announced Friday bring to 214 the number of troops killed so far this year, well ahead of the 151 who died in all of 2008.
Four soldiers died Thursday in the same small district of southeastern Zabul province. Three were killed when their Stryker vehicle triggered a bomb in its path, and the fourth was shot to death in an insurgent attack, said U.S. military spokesman Lt. Robert Carr. The Stryker brigade arrived in Zabul as part of the summertime surge to try to secure the region ahead of Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Marine was fatally shot while on foot patrol in southwestern Nimroz province, said Capt. Elizabeth Mathias, a military spokeswoman.
The U.S. is on track to have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2009, but the Pentagon said McChrystal would ask this week for as many as 40,000 new forces. Some question the wisdom of sending more troops to support a government facing allegations of widespread fraud in last month's disputed vote.
On Friday, election officials agreed to recount results from a sample of 10 percent of polling stations with suspect results in a push to release long-delayed results before winter makes any runoff vote impossible. Though preliminary results show President Hamid Karzai winning, there are enough questionable ballots that the recounts could force him into a runoff with his top challenger.
About half of all Americans oppose increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, according to a poll released Friday. The New York Times/CBS News poll found that only 29 percent of respondents believed the U.S. should add troops in Afghanistan, down from 42 percent in February. The survey, conducted Sept. 19-23, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
In a report to the White House, McChrystal argued that military commanders need to be less preoccupied with protecting their troops and send them out into Afghan communities more. He acknowledged this "could expose military personnel and civilians to greater risk in the near term," but said the payoff in terms of forging ties with the Afghan people would be worth it.
"Accepting some risk in the short term will ultimately save lives in the long run," he wrote.
The light-armored Stryker vehicles were sent to Afghanistan as part of a plan to take over a large swathe of the south. The idea behind the vehicles is that they can deploy quickly over large distances, exercising control over a wider area than can be held by foot soldiers. However, they are more vulnerable to roadside bombs than more heavily armored vehicles.
Bombs planted in roads, fields and near bases now account for the majority of U.S. and NATO casualties and have proven especially dangerous in the south. With the five deaths, a total of 34 U.S. forces have died in Afghanistan in September. August, which was the deadliest month of the war for American troops, saw 51 deaths.