THE number of foreign troops to die this year in Afghanistan has reached 600, by far the highest annual toll in nine years of war despite tentative reconciliation efforts with the Taliban.
The milestone was reached after a NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announcement that a soldier had been killed in an insurgent attack in the east on Sunday.
Another NATO soldier was killed in a bomb blast in the Taliban heartland of southern Afghanistan on the same day.
The toll of 600, according to an AFP tally based on a count kept by the icasualties.org website, compares to 521 killed in all of 2009 in what was previously the deadliest year on record for the forces in Afghanistan.
On average, two soldiers die each day. A total of 2170 foreign soldiers have been killed since the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan which overthrew the hardline Islamist Taliban regime.
A Taliban-led insurgency has since strengthened each year, but it is most intense in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand.
At least 1348 American troops are among the dead, and the US military provides two-thirds of the 150,000-strong international force in Afghanistan.
Foreign and Afghan forces are currently engaged in a major offensive around Kandahar city – capital of the province of the same name – aimed at pushing the insurgents out of the area to bring an end to the war.
The surge in military deaths has followed the deployment of about 40,000 extra US and NATO troops under a White House strategy designed to clear major towns and cities of the Taliban and restore confidence in the government.
The US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan said an increasing number of Taliban leaders are showing interest in talks with the US-backed government in Kabul as pressure mounts from the intensifying NATO military campaign.
“What we’ve got here is an increasing number of Taliban at high levels saying, ‘Hey, we want to talk’,” Richard Holbrooke told CNN in an interview.
“We think this is a result in large part of the growing pressure they’re under from General (David) Petraeus and the ISAF command.”
But he cautioned that the feelers so far add up to “contacts and discussions” rather than peace negotiations to end the war.
The New York Times reported last week that Taliban leaders were being offered safe passage by NATO troops from their sanctuaries in Pakistan, and in one case were flown to Kabul in a NATO aircraft.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set up a High Council for Peace to pursue dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Western public opinion is growing increasingly tired of the war, angry over corruption within Karzai’s government and mounting casualties. Dutch troops ended their mission in Afghanistan on August 1. Italy plans to hand over control of large parts of western Afghanistan by the end of 2011.
Canada, which is the sixth-largest contributor of troops, intends to pull its estimated 2,830 troops out of the south in 2011. US President Barack Obama has said he wants American troops to start withdrawing from July 2011.
The objective is for Afghanistan to take over responsibility for security by late 2014, but experts doubt that local security forces will be big enough or sufficiently well trained to shoulder the burden on schedule.