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July Worst US Month in Afghanistan, Best in Iraq


The month of July had the highest death toll for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began nearly eight years ago, and the lowest death toll in Iraq since that war began six years ago. In Afghanistan, at least 43 Americans were killed, among 75 coalition troops. In Iraq, the U.S. death toll was seven.

The statistics reflect the changing role of U.S. troops in both war zones.

In Iraq, American combat forces left the populated areas at the end of June. Only U.S. trainers operate with Iraqi units in the cities, while combat troops work in the countryside or wait on their bases in case Iraqi units need help.

In Afghanistan, by contrast, thousands of U.S. troops have been pouring in, part of the near doubling of the American military presence ordered by President Barack Obama. About 4,000 of those troops, along with British and Afghan forces, launched an offensive in southern Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold, and took heavy casualties.

Former State Department official Wayne White, now of the Middle East Institute, says high U.S. casualty rates in Afghanistan will likely continue for some time.

"As we ramp up our presence and we go after these bad guys who are very tough skilled fighters, seemingly much more capable of sustained combat than even the Iraqi insurgents, we will see higher U.S. casualties," he said.

White is also concerned that U.S. casualties in Iraq could rise again, if security deteriorates and the Iraqi military asks for help in some areas. But he says Iraqi leaders will do everything possible to prevent that from happening. The United States is scheduled to sharply reduce its troop presence in Iraq next year, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this week that process could start earlier than planned if the security situation remains stable.

In Afghanistan, an opposite move is being contemplated. Civilian advisers to the new U.S. and NATO commander, General Stanley McChrystal said this week they have told him he needs more U.S. troops to put down the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The general's decision on what to ask Secretary Gates and President Obama to provide is expected in about two weeks.

Wayne White says General McChrystal's assessment and possible troop request may not be what the top officials want to hear.

"He's got a big task ahead of him. And I believe that probably the administration will be even more surprised than it has been over how badly the situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan, and may have to send him additional troops, with great reluctance on their part," said White.

That reluctance stems from a concern Secretary Gates has expressed about possibly alienating some Afghans by having a very large U.S. troop presence, and from a desire not to have more months like July with high American casualty figures.

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