Grappling with a record death toll in an overshadowed war, President Bush promised Wednesday to send more U.S. troops into Afghanistan by year’s end. He conceded that June was a “tough month,” in fact, the deadliest for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began. “One reason why there have been more deaths is because our troops are taking the fight to a tough enemy, an enemy who doesn’t like our presence there because they don’t like the idea of America denying safe haven [to terrorists],” Bush told reporters. “Of course there’s going to be resistance.”
Bush said it was a tough month too for the Taliban. But the once-toppled Islamist regime in Afghanistan has now rebounded with deadly force. More U.S. and NATO troops have died in the past two months in Afghanistan than in Iraq, a place with triple the number of U.S. and coalition forces. In June, 28 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan. That was the highest monthly total of the entire war, which began in October 2001.
For the full U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan the death toll was 46, also the highest of the war. Bush confronted the grim direction of the Afghanistan conflict during a sun-splashed Rose Garden appearance. The president used the event to tout his agenda for an upcoming Group of Eight meeting in Japan with world leaders, then addressed Iran, climate change and gasoline prices in a short Q&A session with reporters.
The Pentagon predicts the pace of attacks in Afghanistan by a resurgent Taliban is likely to rise this year, despite U.S.-led efforts to capture key leaders. We’re going to increase troops by 2009,” Bush said, without offering details about exactly when or how many. It amounted to a reiteration of the promised buildup of U.S. troops before Bush leaves office in January. He said coalition forces have doubled in size over two years, and pledged that the twin strategy of fighting extremists and supporting Afghanistan’s civil development “is going to work.”
In terms of public attention, the war in Afghanistan has been obscured by the far costlier and deadlier one in Iraq. But it is a matter of consensus within the Bush administration, and between the U.S. and key allies, that there are far too few troops in Afghanistan to fight the accelerating Taliban and to train Afghan soldiers and police.
Overall, roughly 32,000 U.S. troops are in Afghanistan, including 14,000 serving with NATO forces and 18,000 conducting training and counterinsurgency. That’s the largest U.S. presence since the war began. Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the original target after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The United States led the ouster of the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001 for providing haven to terrorists, including al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
The Pentagon’s top military officer said Wednesday that if security continues to improve in Iraq he is hopeful he will begin to have troops available to shift to Afghanistan by the end of this year. Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said more troops are essential to stem the violence. “The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, and as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate,” Mullen said. He added that “there’s no easy solution, and there will be no quick fix.”
The latest assessment from the Pentagon, released last week, describes a dual terror threat in Afghanistan: the Taliban in the south, and “a more complex, adaptive insurgency” in the east, made up of groups ranging from al-Qaida and Afghan warlords to Pakistani militants. Military officials say security has deteriorated in large part because of the lawless, tribal border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Bush said he will seek to remind his peers at the G-8 summit that the battle against violent extremists goes on. “The temptation is to kind of say, well, maybe this isn’t really a war, maybe this is just a bunch of disgruntled folks that occasionally come and hurt us,” Bush said. “You know, that’s not the way I feel about it. This is an ongoing, constant struggle to defend our own security.” The other G-8 nations are Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. The summit will be the last of Bush’s presidency.