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In Afghanistan, a Deadly Day for Americans

October 26, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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American forces suffered their deadliest day in four years in Afghanistan as 14 troops and civilians were killed in separate air crashes. Kwame Holman reports.

JIM LEHRER: This was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan in more than four years. At least 14 U.S. troops and civilians were killed in separate air crashes.

It came as President Obama wrestled again with future troop commitments and as Afghan President Karzai rejected a rival’s demand.

NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman has our lead story report.

KWAME HOLMAN: All of the day’s losses involved helicopters, used heavily by the U.S. military to ferry forces across Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.

Three helicopters went down in two separate incidents across the country. One crashed in the west. Seven U.S. troops and three agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were killed. And, in the south, two U.S. Marine helicopters collided in flight. Four American troops were killed there.

COL. WAYNE SHANKS, spokesperson, NATO: In both of these incidents, we do not believe that enemy action was responsible for that. We’re still looking into it to see what actually happened, but we don’t believe that it was due to any enemy fire.

In Western Afghanistan, the helicopter was just departing an operation where they were going in to look for an insurgent that had been working with the narcotics trade. And we actually got into a fairly serious firefight in that particular village. And we killed 14 of the enemy fighters before our forces went to the helicopters to fly away.

KWAME HOLMAN: A spokesman for the Taliban disputed that version of events. He claimed insurgents shot down an American helicopter in the northwest. It was unclear if he referred to the same incident in that region reported by the U.S. military.

With today’s deaths and two over the weekend, at least 47 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan so far in October. Well over 400 have died this year, the highest toll of the entire war.

Attacks on Afghans also continued to grow. Today, a provincial governor in the east survived an assassination attempt. Gunmen fired automatic weapons at his convoy in Jalalabad. Amid the violence, President Obama called a sixth high-level meeting to discuss sending more U.S. troops. Later, he traveled to the naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida, and made a promise to the Navy and Marine Corps audience.

Obama promises 'solemn decision'

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I will never rush the solemn decision of sending you into harm's way. I won't risk your lives unless it is absolutely necessary.

BARACK OBAMA: And if it is necessary, we will back you up to the hilt.

KWAME HOLMAN: In fact, The Washington Post reported Pentagon officials oversaw a secret war game this month, testing different deployments and the possible outcomes.

In a Washington speech, Democratic Senator John Kerry warned a large-scale U.S. pullout could trigger civil war. But he also balked at a major buildup, as commanding General Stanley McChrystal wants.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass., foreign relations committee chairman: He understands the necessity of conducting a smart counterinsurgency in a limited geographic area. But I believe his current plan reaches too far too fast. We do not yet have the critical guarantees of governance and of development capacity, the other two legs of counterinsurgency.

KWAME HOLMAN: The U.S. also faced new protests in Kabul, after several NATO soldiers allegedly burned a copy of the Koran last week. Hundreds of students chanted "Death to America" and burned an effigy of President Obama.

And there were growing political tensions ahead of the presidential runoff set for November 7. Today, Abdullah Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai's chief rival, charged, the country's top election official is biased and must be removed.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: He has left no credibility for the institution and, unfortunately, for he himself, in order to be trusted by the people of Afghanistan as the head of an independent body.

KWAME HOLMAN: Abdullah did not rule out boycotting the runoff if his demands goes unmet. But, in a statement, Karzai refused to sack the election chief, saying he has not done anything illegal.

JIM LEHRER: We will have more on Afghanistan, including an interview with Senator Kerry, later in the program.