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July Was Deadliest Month for U.S. Forces in Afghanistan

July 31, 2009 at 1:22 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner updates the U.S. war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan then speaks with a Washington Post reporter about the latest military strategy.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s been the deadliest month yet for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, with 42 killed there in July. For the same month in Iraq, U.S. casualties were the lowest since that war began.

The news from both fronts comes amidst a growing debate within military circles over whether the U.S. should accelerate its withdrawal from Iraq and further increase its military presence in Afghanistan.

Though violence continues in Iraq, bombings in Baghdad killed at least 29 Iraqis today. Just 7 U.S. troops died this month, down from 15 in June.

But since the June 30th U.S. withdrawal from Iraqi cities, tensions have arisen over the Iraqis’ growing reluctance to conduct joint patrols and Iraqi restrictions on how U.S. forces can operate on their own.

In an internal memo circulating widely in Washington and reported today in the New York Times, a U.S. Army colonel advising the Iraqi military said it was time to “declare victory” and pull all U.S. forces out well ahead of the December 2011 deadline.

“The security of U.S. forces are at risk,” he wrote, because of the new restrictions. And he added, “Remaining in Iraq through the end of December 2011 will yield little in the way of improving the abilities of the Iraqi security forces or the functioning of the government of Iraq.”

A spokeswoman for General Ray Odierno, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, said the memo “reflects one person’s personal view,” not that of the U.S. military.

In Afghanistan, where U.S. troop deaths are up 50 percent since June, roadside bombs are the biggest killer. Most of the deaths occurred in the east and in the south, where the bulk of new U.S. troops were deployed this year. They’re mounting a major offensive against the Taliban in Helmand province.

The top allied commander, General Stanley McChrystal, explained recently why it was so deadly in the south.

Success Will Not Be Quick or Easy

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, commander, International Security Assistance Force, Afghanistan: You have a combination of factors there. It's the original home of the Taliban. There's the narcotics production, which pumps a lot of money into that and breeds corruption. And then there's the fact there's proximity to Pakistan, where a tremendous number of the leaders and whatnot can seek safe haven.

MARGARET WARNER: McChrystal assumed his post in mid-June after Secretary of Defense Gates fired his predecessor, General David McKiernan. Gates said it was time for a new commander to come up with a new strategy.

President Obama had already announced a major troop increase for Afghanistan. The new troops started arriving in late spring and now stand at 62,000.

At his Senate confirmation, General McChrystal warned that the stepped-up effort would be more costly in U.S. lives.

GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL: There is no simple answer. We must conduct a holistic counterinsurgency campaign, and we must do it well. Success will not be quick or easy. Casualties will likely increase. We will make mistakes.

MARGARET WARNER: The stepped-up fighting has also cost more Afghan lives. Civilian deaths are up 24 percent in the first six months of this year, according to a new U.N. tally. Two-thirds of them were killed by insurgent attacks and one-third by international and Afghan forces.

McChrystal is expected to complete his strategy review and present his recommendations in two weeks. According to today's Washington Post, it is likely to call for a shift in strategy, a big boost in Afghan forces, and perhaps an increase in U.S. forces, as well.

As plans now stand, there would be 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by year's end, double the number last December.

MARGARET WARNER: And for more, we turn to Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He recently returned from a three-week reporting trip to Afghanistan, and he also has covered the Iraq war, veteran of two fronts.

Rajiv, tell us more about General McChrystal's review and where he seems to be headed.

Protecting the Civilians

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN, Washington Post: Well, General McChrystal has convened a group of experts in Afghanistan to look at how this war really needs to be fought differently. It was a part of a request made to him by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates when he got out there.

And what he's seeking to do here is to really refocus the effort. What he wants U.S. and NATO forces to do is to focus less on going after the Taliban and more on protecting the civilian population. And that, he feels, requires a real shift in the culture and the approach that forces take, instead of riding around in big mine-resistant vehicles, getting out and going on more foot patrols, talking to people.

But that approach will require more resources. It's going to presumably require perhaps thousands more U.S. and NATO forces to get out there and to engage in this sort of population-centric counterinsurgency fight and to take on the very challenging task of training and equipping and mentoring the Afghan security forces.

MARGARET WARNER: And particularly because he's apparently going to recommend increasing those Afghan forces hugely.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: That's right. He sees the need to increase those forces as essential to trying to build stability there. Ultimately, you know, he feels the Afghans know their country much better than the Americans or other NATO forces do. They speak the language. They know where the pockets of resistance are better than, perhaps, the foreign forces and feels that there just aren't enough.

For instance, in Helmand province, where there's large Marine operation, there are about 11,000 American servicemembers in that province working on that operation. There are fewer than 500 Afghan soldiers to partner with them, and he feels that's an unacceptably small ratio.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, so your reporting tells you that he's headed to asking for more U.S. troops, yet President Obama and General Petraeus, the CENTCOM commander, both have said too big a footprint could be counterproductive.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. And a senior U.S. official told me yesterday that this is going to be a very tough sell at the White House. Senior officials of Obama's national security team want to see how McChrystal uses the troops that President Obama has already authorized, some 21,000 earlier this year, wants to see how that plays out before sending more over there.

They also want to ensure that other aspects of the broader counterinsurgency fight are also engaged, particularly the deployment of American civilians to help out those soldiers.

At present, despite plans by the State Department to send several hundred more civilians to work with the soldiers, there have only been a handful that have arrived in there. And that's of great concern to people at the White House and at the Pentagon, and there's a lot of pressure now on the State Department to accelerate the deployment of civilians to work alongside military personnel.

Engaging with the Afghan Population

MARGARET WARNER: Because President Obama in his speech announcing the new so-called Af-Pak strategy talked about dramatic increase in civilians, we need engineers, we need lawyers, we need agricultural experts.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: That's key to trying to rebuild that country. These are skill sets that soldiers don't have, and they recognize that.

But, you know, unlike the military, you just don't have groups of those people that are readily deployable. The administration has to find the right people from the Department of Agriculture, from other parts of the government, get them trained up, get them out there, and that's a time-consuming process.

But what the military is saying is, "We don't have that time. We're engaged in these military operations. We're going and clearing out districts in Helmand province. Now we need those civilians to come in and help us rebuild, to engage with the Afghan population there."

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let's turn to Iraq. Now, this memo surfaces from this Colonel Reese, scathing words about the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government, saying we ought to just declare victory and pull out. How widely is that view shared within the Pentagon, within the military?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, I think at senior levels of the Defense Department, that view is not at all shared. There is a very strongly held view that the presence of U.S. forces is really helping to act as a buffer between various rival groups in Iraq and is acting as sort of an insurance policy against a backslide into worse violence.

But at the rank-and-file level, at the level of junior officers and enlisted personnel, people who are out engaged in day-to-day efforts at trying to patrol with the Iraqis, trying to train them, there's a real degree of frustration, because the world really did change for them on the 1st of July, as Iraqis assumed more and more control for security affairs and the Americans started to take a greater supporting, backseat role.

Larger Operation Means More Deaths

MARGARET WARNER: Briefly, so even though Secretary Gates has said, Oh, we've worked out all these problems, you're saying there are tensions?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: There are tensions. And there's some private consternation at the Pentagon and at the U.S. Military Command in Baghdad about just how this new relationship is playing out.

MARGARET WARNER: So bottom line, Rajiv, when we're talking about casualties, is it fair to say that the expectation within the military is that, unfortunately, the number of deaths in Afghanistan will probably continue to increase whereas the situation in Iraq, these low numbers, are likely to be maintained?

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: That's certainly the hope, that the low numbers will be maintained in Iraq. There is concern, though, that the new rules are perhaps preventing U.S. forces from responding to threats against them, mortar attacks and such, on their bases.

In Afghanistan, yes, I think, unfortunately, for the period of the next couple of months, as U.S. forces are engaged in more of these larger operations against the Taliban, they will, unfortunately, be at a heightened level of casualties. And that's something that senior commanders have warned people to expect.

MARGARET WARNER: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thank you so much.

RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: It's good to talk to you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Great to have you.

JIM LEHRER: You can read the Iraq memo that sparked the recent controversy on our Web site,