U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have risen to 65 so far this year, up from 36 over the first five months of 2008 — though U.S. and coalition troops have also killed hundreds more militants, an Associated Press tally shows.

Share story

KABUL — U.S. deaths in Afghanistan have risen to 65 so far this year, up from 36 over the first five months of 2008 — though U.S. and coalition troops have also killed hundreds more militants, an Associated Press tally shows.

As newly arriving Marines enter the violent Afghan south — the spiritual home of the Taliban and the country’s major drug-producing region — the military said Tuesday that U.S. deaths will likely increase even further this summer.

“We’re doing everything we can to ensure the deaths occur on the militants’ side, but there is a potential there will be an increase in U.S. deaths,” said Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.

In Washington, D.C., President Obama’s pick to lead U.S. forces in Afghanistan warned Tuesday that casualties are likely to increase as the U.S. military steps up its campaign against insurgents in the beleaguered country.

Confirmation hearing

Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who testified Tuesday at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, is expected to make sweeping changes in the U.S. approach to a war effort that has suffered setbacks since the initial rout of the Taliban government in 2001

Obama ordered an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan earlier this year, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month fired the current U.S. commander there, Gen. David McKiernan, as part of an effort to bring “fresh thinking” to the battle.

Strategy outlined

McChrystal outlined his strategy, saying that it will rely heavily on bolstering U.S. intelligence collection in the country, reducing civilian casualties and dramatically speeding up the training of Afghan security forces.

The Obama administration has set a goal of expanding the number of Afghan troops from 86,000 to 134,000. But McChrystal made it clear that the number is likely to rise well beyond that.

“Success will not be quick or easy,” McChrystal said. “Casualties will likely increase.”

McChrystal, a specialist at guerrilla warfare who is known for his ascetic lifestyle and extreme fitness regimen, was credited for his inventive use of special-operations teams in Iraq to track down Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other insurgents.

But he may face a more daunting task in Afghanistan, where insurgent fighters routinely retreat to safety across the border with Pakistan.

A U.S. defeat in Afghanistan would likely lead to civil war in Pakistan, the return of al-Qaida and the creation of a new haven for Taliban groups that have challenged the Pakistani government.

Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whether that sequence could lead to the collapse of Pakistan, McChrystal replied: “Sir, I think it’s very likely. And then, of course, that’s a nuclear-armed state so you’ve got nuclear weapons under questionable control at that point.”

McChrystal was also asked about his role in the Army’s misleading accounts of the death of Army Ranger and former professional football player Pat Tillman in 2004.

A Pentagon inspector-general report faulted McChrystal for signing off on a Silver Star citation that suggested Tillman had been killed by enemy fire, even though officials knew that Tillman had been accidentally killed by his fellow soldiers. The report credited McChrystal with trying to call the matter to the attention of his superiors.

Tillman case

Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said he had been contacted by members of the Tillman family when McChrystal’s nomination Afghanistan was announced.

“We failed the family. And I was part of that, and I apologize for it,” McChrystal said.

The latest U.S. death came Tuesday during an insurgent attack in the east that killed one soldier. On Monday, two roadside bombs ripped through two military vehicles in the same convoy, killing four Americans in Wardak, one province west of Kabul.

U.S. counter-IED experts say they expect IED attacks — roadside bombs and suicide attacks — to rise 50 percent this year, contributing to the increase in casualties.

The death Tuesday brought to 65 the number of U.S. forces killed in Afghanistan this year, according to an AP count based on military figures. Not counting the five deaths in June, U.S. deaths are up 66 percent the first five months of the year over the same period last year.