KABUL: The American military death toll in Afghanistan has passed the 1,000 mark at a time when President Barack Obama’s strategy to turn back the Taliban is facing its greatest test — an ambitious campaign to win over a disgruntled population in the insurgents’ southern heartland.
More casualties are expected when the campaign kicks into high gear this summer. The results may determine the outcome of a nearly nine-year conflict that became "Obama’s war" after he decided to shift the fight against Islamist militancy from Iraq to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Afghan insurgents find sanctuary.
The grim milestone was reached when NATO reported that a service member was killed Friday in a roadside bombing in southern Afghanistan. The statement did not identify the victim or give the nationality. US spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said the service member was American — the 32nd US war death this month by an Associated Press count.
Already the new focus on the once-forgotten Afghan war has come at a heavy price. More than 430 of the US dead were killed after Obama took office in January 2009.
The list of American service members killed in combat in Afghanistan begins with Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman of San Antonio, Texas, a 31-year-old career Special forces soldier ambushed on Jan. 4, 2002, after attending a meeting with Afghan leaders in Khost province. He left a wife and two children. The base where a suicide bomber killed seven CIA employees last December bears his name.
For many of the more than 94,000 US service members in Afghanistan, the 1,000-mark passed without fanfare.
Capt. Nick Ziemba of Wilbraham, Massachusetts, serving with the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment in southern Afghanistan, said 1,000 was an arbitrary number and would have no impact on troop morale or operations.
"We’re going to continue to work," he said.
The AP bases its tally on Defense Department reports of deaths suffered as a direct result of the Afghan conflict, including personnel assigned to units in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Uzbekistan. Other news organizations count deaths suffered by service members assigned elsewhere as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes operations in the Philippines, the Horn of Africa and at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The grim milestone comes midway between the president’s decision last December to send 30,000 more US troops to Afghanistan and a gut check on the war’s progress that he has promised by the end of the year.
After a long and wrenching conflict in Iraq — which has claimed nearly 4,400 American military lives — Obama has promised not to be backed into an open-ended war in Afghanistan. He has insisted that some US troops will come home beginning in July 2011.
That has not been enough to satisfy his anti-war supporters. At the same time, mid-2011 may be too soon to turn the tide.
As casualties rise, the slide in overall support for the war may accelerate.
A majority of Americans — 52 percent — say the war is not worth the cost. The negative assessment in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll followed a brief rise in support for the war after Obama refocused the US war plan last year.
In an AP-GfK Poll in March, the public was about split: 50 percent said they opposed the war and 46 percent favored it. That was within the poll’s margin of error.
In the same poll, 57 percent said they would oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan and 49 percent approved of the job Obama is doing on Afghanistan. That’s equal to his overall approval rating and one of the higher approval ratings he gets on any issue.
Those figures could change dramatically depending on the outcome of the coming operation in Kandahar, the biggest city in the south, with about a half million people, and the Taliban’s former spiritual headquarters. US commanders believe Kandahar is the key to the ethnic Pashtun south, the main theater in the war.
The operation will pose the greatest test for the US counterinsurgency strategy, which focuses on protecting civilians, bolstering the Afghan government and rushing in economic development to win public support. It is also expected to lead to a spike in US casualties, even though the military says the campaign will include very little traditional combat.
America’s top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, said last week that the southern campaign is the key to persuading Afghans to reject the Taliban, take greater control of their own security and support the central government in Kabul.
That won’t be easy. Many Pashtuns, who form the overwhelming majority of the Taliban, view the central government as corrupt and ineffectual, dominated by rival communities of ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.
Many Pashtuns prefer negotiations with the Taliban, even if talks end with a significant political role for an Islamist movement that once sheltered Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.
"The Taliban are not outsiders. They are our own people," said Kandahar farmer Raaz Mohammad. "They should sit and resolve the situation. This is the only thing they can do if they want peace over here."
Among many rural southern Pashtuns, years of deteriorating security, rising crime and corrupt administration have blurred memories of the economic hardship, harsh rule and subjugation of women that were hallmarks of the Taliban when they ran most of the country from 1996 until the US-led invasion of 2001.
"I am living here since birth and I think the Taliban time was much better than this," said Neda Mohammad, a Kandahar businessman. "The only thing that we were missing at that time was a hospital. Otherwise, we were much better then than now. Why do the Americans think they can win? They can’t win and they know that."
The challenges of winning over a reluctant and intimidated population have become clear in the wake of last February’s operation to clear Marjah, a southern farming community of about 80,000 people in Helmand province west of Kandahar. US Marines and Afghan forces seized the community in about two weeks of fighting, rushing in an Afghan administration to begin development projects and restore public services.
Three months later, officials acknowledge that progress in winning public support has been slow. Taliban fighters simply hid their weapons and blended in with the population. Through a clandestine campaign of assassination and intimidation, the Taliban have slowed development projects because people are afraid to cooperate with the coalition.
Col. Kamaluddin, a deputy provincial police chief who uses only one name, said about 600 families, or 1,200 people, had fled Marjah in recent days because of Taliban threats.
"The Taliban are moving back into Marjah and getting stronger," he said.
Ghulam Farooq Noorzai, head of the refugee department in Helmand, confirmed the exodus, saying Marjah residents have reported the Taliban were "beheading, killing and burning" to drive a wedge between the population and Afghan and coalition authorities.
The challenges of restoring order and curbing the Taliban’s influence will be even tougher in Kandahar, a much larger city with a long history of support for the Taliban.
Despite the slow pace, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, said the "overall campaign" against the Taliban "is on track."
"I believe that by the end of this year we will be able to demonstrate that we have the initiative and the momentum is with us," Sedwill told reporters in Kabul.
For soldier-leaders, the main task is to perform the mission with as few casualties as possible.
"We understand what we were getting into and we understand that it’s something that has to be done," Staff Sgt. James Knower of Pavilion, N.Y., said at a base in Helmand. "I would never think that what we’ve done here is a waste of time. We’re going to the end."
Of American casualties, he added: "It’s war. It’s going to happen." –Anne Gearan in Washington, Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Christopher Torchia in Helmand province, Amir Shah in Kabul and Monika Mathur at the AP’s News Research Center in New York contributed to this report.