KABUL/ROME: Four Italian soldiers were killed and one seriously wounded in an insurgent attack in western Afghanistan on Saturday, Italy’s Foreign Ministry said, the latest foreign casualties in a war now in its 10th year. Violence is at its worst in Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown by US-backed forces in late 2001. More than 2,000 foreign troops have died since the start of the war, more than half of those in the last two years.
“This assault against Italian soldiers is an example of the high human cost we have to pay for a mission that is fundamental for our national security,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said in a statement.
The soldiers from the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were returning from a mission when their vehicle was ambushed by insurgents in Farah province, a spokesman for the defence ministry told Italian television.
The deaths raise Italy’s toll in Afghanistan to 34 since 2004. Rising casualties have in the past prompted calls from Italy to pull out. Italy has more than 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, mainly deployed in the western part of the country that is usually less violent than other areas in the south and the east.
Foreign troop casualties have spiked this year, with more than 570 troops being killed, compared to 521 for all of 2009. June was the bloodiest month, with more than 100 killed. More than 20 soldiers have died this month alone.
There are now nearly 150,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including some 100,000 Americans. Leaders from troop-contributing nations are facing intense pressure at home over an increasingly unpopular war.
The rising violence in Afghanistan will weigh heavily on US President Barack Obama when his administration faces mid-term Congressional elections next month amid sagging public support for the war and ahead of a strategy review in December. In December, Obama ordered 30,000 more US troops into Afghanistan to try to turn the tide, the last of which have arrived. But he also plans to start bringing troops home in July 2011 and slowly hand over security to Afghan forces.
This year has also seen a rise in civilian deaths as ordinary Afghans are increasingly caught up in the crossfire. According to a mid-year United Nations report, violent civilian deaths jumped 31 percent in the first half of 2010.
Meanwhile President Hamid Karzai visited volatile southern Afghanistan on Saturday to meet with scores of tribal elders, as four Italian troops were killed in an insurgent ambush in the west. Gen. David Petraeus, top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry accompanied Karzai, who is expected to rally support among residents for international forces and the Afghan government.
More than 200 tribal leaders from around the troubled province of Kandahar assembled to see the president. Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and Turyalai Wesa, governor of Kandahar province, were among the group visiting Kandahar’s restive Arghandab district.
Karzai’s half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai — a key provincial power-broker — was among the entourage. Kandahar is the scene of NATO’s Operation Dragon Strike, targeting the Taliban in their southern strongholds. The operation aims to rout insurgents from areas they have long controlled. Karzai and the other officials visited Kandahar’s famous Baba Sahib Shrine on Saturday.-SANA