Photos From NPR's David Gilkey
U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan and local civilians now share a grim common enemy: death by roadside bomb.
July was the deadliest month for American troops since the war began in the fall of 2001. At least 43 U.S. servicemen lost their lives, with about two-thirds being killed by roadside bombs.
That's about the same ratio for Afghan civilians. The U.N. reports that about 1,000 civilians were killed through June, a 25 percent increase from the same period last year.
Most of the bombs are crudely made, sometimes including fertilizer and diesel fuel packed into plastic jugs. They have little metal, so they're difficult to find with metal detectors and other sophisticated equipment. So U.S. Marines are bringing in dogs to help sniff out the components.
Lance Cpl. Robert Leddy and a black Labrador retriever named Lode are one of 13 bomb-detecting teams attached to the Marines' 2nd Battalion, 8th Regiment. Their task is to help clear the roads of the deadly bombs that are taking a major toll on U.S. troops, spotting telltale signs of a recently dug patch of road, or a suspicious box.
A Preferred Tool For The Taliban
Those roadside bombs are becoming the favorite tool of the Taliban, according to a U.N. report released this week.
The report says Taliban forces are now changing their tactics, shifting away from ambushes or frontal assaults. U.S. officers report finding more and more caches of fertilizer and bomb-making materials.
Roadside bombs also are becoming a favorite terrorist weapon against civilians.
The U.N. says a statement from a deputy commander to Taliban leader Mullah Omar was of "particular concern."
According to the U.N., the deputy commander said in June that fighters should "place themselves among civilians, and civilians should be prepared to die, because such tactics draw response from the PGF (pro-government forces) and enhance their struggle by undermining public support for the continued presence of the international military and international community in general."
That Taliban tactic has been successful. There has been some erosion in support for U.S. and coalition forces because of the use of airstrikes to hit Taliban positions. The U.N. says such aerial attacks have led to increased numbers of civilian deaths.
After Taliban attacks, the second leading cause of civilian deaths is from U.S. and coalition airstrikes, according to the U.N.
U.S. officials have now tried to curtail such air attacks, especially under guidelines issued by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took over in June as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. Marines and other troops are now trying to simply surround Taliban fighters they find in civilian areas, rather than calling in bombing runs.
'On The Roads, We Will Kill Them'
Afghanistan has mostly dirt roads. That makes it easier to dig and place the bombs. They're being buried all over Afghanistan, especially in the south, where thousands of American troops are now stationed or getting ready to deploy.
That includes Helmand province, where Marines from Camp Lejeune, N.C., have set up combat outposts; and neighboring Kandahar province, where Army troops from Fort Lewis, Wash., will soon take up positions. Both provinces are strongholds of the Taliban.
When the Americans head out on patrol, or wait for supplies from convoys, Taliban forces will be waiting. One Taliban commander recently told the Los Angeles Times: "They must use the roads, and on the roads we will kill them."
On Saturday, three more American troops were killed in southern Afghanistan.
A U.S. military spokesman says they died in two bomb blasts.