American forces suffer first combat deaths of the new year
KABUL — U.S. forces in Afghanistan suffered their first combat deaths of the new year, the military reported Monday, with four troops killed a day earlier in the country’s violent south.
The battlefield losses occurred as Afghan President Hamid Karzai faced a fresh political confrontation, ordering parliament to put off its winter recess and vote on a new Cabinet lineup as soon as this weekend. On Saturday, lawmakers defied the president by rejecting two-thirds of his Cabinet picks.
Western officials are worried about the weakness of the Karzai government as the Obama administration embarks on a troop buildup that will nearly double the American military presence in Afghanistan. The Afghan leader is under pressure to form a government before a major conference of international donors in London beginning Jan. 28.
As the first of 30,000 new troops begin flowing into the country, adding to some 68,000 already deployed here, Western commanders have warned that a commensurate increase in casualties is likely. That is in part because the additional American forces will push into parts of the country that were previously under the sway of the Taliban and other insurgents.
In 2010’s first reported battlefield deaths, military officials said four American troops had been killed in a roadside bomb in the south. A British soldier was killed in a separate explosion.
Roadside bombs are the No. 1 killer of Western forces in Afghanistan, and have become the signature weapon of the Taliban and other insurgents. Multiple fatalities in a single incident, such as the strike that killed the four Americans, have become commonplace, because members of the Taliban are using larger and more powerful improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, capable of destroying armored vehicles and killing most or all of those inside.
The military did not reveal the location of the latest deaths, but most Americans in the south are based in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where the Taliban movement is the strongest. Those provinces are a center of Afghanistan’s drug trade, which has close links to the insurgency.
Most of the arriving reinforcements are to be deployed in the south, where thousands of U.S. Marines have been trying to secure a key swath of the Helmand River valley. Other U.S. troops are working to quell a rising insurgent presence around the city of Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual center.
Fighting has flared recently in Afghanistan’s north, where the insurgency has strengthened in recent months. Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry said at least 10 Taliban fighters were killed in a clash Sunday with Afghan troops.
The Western war effort has been complicated by months of political paralysis, and the deadlock may deepen in coming days. While parliament’s weekend rejection of 17 of Karzai’s 24 Cabinet choices was seen in some quarters as a welcome display of independence on lawmakers’ part, it has left the government barely functioning.
Setting the stage for a potential showdown, senior aides to Karzai suggested that the president may put forth some of the same Cabinet nominees when the issue comes up for a second vote. Among those rejected was Ismail Khan, a powerful warlord who is the incumbent minister of energy.
The support of a number of onetime militia leaders such as Khan helped Karzai win a second term in office, though the August election was clouded by fraud. While Karzai was eventually declared the winner, international auditors stripped him of nearly a million votes, depriving him of the clear mandate he had sought.
If Karzai is able to strong-arm his Cabinet choices through parliament, it may add to widespread public disillusionment over corruption and inefficiency in the government. But a new political defeat for the president could open the door to prolonged infighting that could render his government an even more unstable partner for the West.
Western diplomats have made it clear to Karzai they expect him to carry out sweeping reforms, but that will be difficult if the Afghan leader is preoccupied with fighting off challenges from political rivals.