Troops, analysts say Taliban rebels are getting stronger
By Kent Harris and Joseph Giordono, Stars and Stripes
Mideast edition, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — The continued strengthening of Taliban militants and the expansion of U.S. and coalition troop footprints are part of the reason that foreign troop deaths in Afghanistan topped those in Iraq for the second straight month, according to troops and analysts.

In June, at least 45 international troops — including 27 Americans — were reported killed in Afghanistan. In Iraq, 31 international troops — including 29 U.S. troops and one each from Georgia and Azerbaijan — died in June.

The number of insurgent attacks in border regions of Afghanistan has increased by some 40 percent over last year, the Pentagon said in a report last week. Particularly in southern Afghanistan, the militant group has launched major operations, including an attack on the Kandahar prison that freed more than 800 prisoners. The Pentagon report forecast the attacks to continue at that pace or even increase.

June has been the deadliest month for coalition troops since the invasion in 2001 dislodged the Taliban regime. Col. David E. Geyer, the commander of Task Force-Med at Bagram air base, said he wouldn’t have numbers available for a few days on how many patients were treated in June. But he said there were more surgical cases seen at Bagram last month than in Balad (in Iraq) in April or May.

U.S. officials say part of the reason is an expansion of U.S. missions, both in eastern and southern Afghanistan, where additional Marines were brought in to bolster the force in May.

"We’re on the move with Afghan forces in the lead in areas that were previously unoccupied," an officer assigned to the CJTF-101 headquarters at Bagram air base said about the increase in U.S. deaths in Afghanistan. Therefore, forces entering those areas have encountered anti-government forces they might not have fought before.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said that U.S. forces traditionally don’t track the number of enemy casualties.

"We don’t focus on numbers," he said. "We focus on conducting our missions."

The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team has lost 33 soldiers in more than a year in Afghanistan, with three over the past five weeks. While neither of the brigade’s infantry battalions based in Vicenza, Italy, has had a soldier killed since January, leaders from both battalions say that it’s not that enemy forces have given up trying.

"They’ve tried and they’ve tried and they’ve tried," said Lt. Col. Mike Fenzel, commander of the 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment in Paktika province. "And they just keep putting themselves in the meat grinder."

He said that soldiers from his battalion had killed at least 300 enemy fighters since January. And they’ve done so without inflicting a single casualty among the civilian population, Fenzel said.

Still, according to the U.N., Afghan civilian deaths in the first half of this year rose 60 percent from the first six months of 2007. The report said the Taliban caused more of those 698 deaths than coalition forces but that many are caught in the escalating fighting.

To the northeast, soldiers from 1-503rd’s sister battalion in Vicenza are getting shot at regularly and engaging enemy forces in operations.

Maj. Brian Beckno, executive officer of the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment in Kunar province, said his unit has "great respect" for those attacking it.

"They’re crafty. They’re smart," he said. "When they have the advantage, they can do us great hardship."

Senior leaders agree with that and say the sophistication of attacks is increasing.

According to The Associated Press, U.S. Maj. Gen. Jeffrey J. Schloesser, the top commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said this month that militant attacks are becoming more complex — such as gunfire from multiple angles plus a roadside bomb. Insurgents are using more explosives, he said.

In an interview with Stars and Stripes last week, the commandant of the Marine Corps said he believes the Marines would be a better fit for a further buildup of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

"I’ve made the point to the secretary a couple of times that if there is a buildup of U.S. forces in Afghanistan that Marines might be better disposed to do some of that type thing because it is more of an expeditionary environment, there’s still pretty much of a fight there," said Gen. James Conway.

"We made the point that as we start to draw down in Iraq, when that first regiment comes out, we’ll be forced with the decision — do we bring it home or do we put it in Afghanistan? And I believe that Marines need to march to the sound of the guns, and if there’s a fight still going on, the Marines need to be there."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.