Military Deaths In Afghanistan Spike

Twice as many U.S. troops were killed this year than last in Afghanistan. Improvised-explosive devices were by far the biggest culprit, up to 7,300 attacks in the past year. Senior U.S. military officials expect things will be far worse next year, because the Taliban is getting stronger.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The attack on the American base is part of an intensifying war in Afghanistan that shows no sings of abating. New U.S. and NATO troops are pouring into the country by the thousands while the Taliban launches ever more sophisticated and deadly attacks there.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson joins us now from Kabul. And, Soraya, let's take a broad look back at the year in Afghanistan. What sort of picture do the numbers give us about the obstacles that we face there in 2010?

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It was a pretty depressing year for military officials here. More than 300 U.S. service members died in Afghanistan, which is more than twice the number that died in 2008. And nearly half of the troops were killed by roadside bombs of which the Taliban planted more than 7,000 this year. We compare that to about 80 back in 2003 and you see how much the war has gotten worse here.

SIEGEL: Well, what do NATO and U.S. military officials say about why things have been getting worse there?

NELSON: Well, in part it's because - the arrival of an additional 33,000 U.S. troops this year allowed the NATO-led coalition to go into areas where the Taliban has pretty much been in control. That obviously leads to more fighting and more casualties.

But even more problematic is that the Taliban have had years to bury thousands of IEDs or improvised explosive devices in roads, field and walls. And of course these bombs end up killing and maiming hundreds of troops. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith is the senior spokesman for the U.S. military here.

Rear Admiral GREGORY SMITH (Director of Communication, U.S. Forces Afghanistan): We do take, you know, each of those losses seriously and you've got the families and friends. But nonetheless, it is a price we must pay and arguably are asked to pay by our nations in order to secure the country as well as for the Afghan people.

NELSON: What is especially frustrating for Smith and other military officials here is that the Taliban is getting stronger despite the ongoing military and civilian surge.

SIEGEL: Well why is the Taliban getting stronger?

NELSON: There is a lot of dissatisfaction with the existing Afghan government on the part of Afghan people here that's because they are unable to deliver services or security to people in any kind of timely fashion if at all. And so you add to that a bad economy and a financial boost from opium crops, and the Taliban is able to have a great field of recruits.

I mean they are able to pay $200 to $300 a month to seasonal fighters. They pay people money to lay bombs. There are estimates that there are hundreds of thousands of these young disinfected men who are basically potential Taliban people. And this is obviously something that makes the militant group very, very strong.

And there's another thing to consider and that is something that a senior intelligence official at the NATO-led coalition here told me and that's all but one province in Afghanistan has a Taliban shadow government, if you will. They don't interact much with the people and they're not really providing services other than rule of law or court services. But the fact that they are that organized is very troubling to NATO officials here.

SIEGEL: So, if they are to reverse that downward spiral of violence in Afghanistan, what will American and NATO forces actually have to do in the coming year?

NELSON: Well, they'll have to take the new troops and basically connect all these areas that they have established some control and some security in now. And that's going to actually lead to more violence. But basically in the next year, they have to fix the situation. They have to make a noticeable difference in Afghan lives. That's what the estimate is here on the part of military officials.

SIEGEL: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Kabul where it is already 2010. Thanks for talking with us. Happy New Year.

NELSON: Happy New Year to you, Robert.

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