Four American troops were killed Wednesday when their helicopter was shot down over southern Afghanistan, the latest insurgent attack in what is shaping up to be one of the bloodiest months on record in the nine-year conflict. A Taliban spokesman said militants used two rockets to down the copter.
NATO and Afghan officials said the helicopter, which was providing cover during a joint U.S.-Afghan mission, was shot down by a rocket propelled grenade in the district of Sangin in volatile Helmand province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi said fighters used two rockets to down the chopper.
The casualties, along with a bomb attack earlier in the day that killed a British soldier, bring the number of fallen NATO troops in Afghanistan so far this month to 29 -- with 17 killed since Sunday.
Monday saw the deadliest day for NATO forces this year as 10 troops -- seven Americans, two Australians and a French Legionnaire -- died in five separate insurgent attacks in the south. The next day, two U.S. soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan and a British soldier was shot dead on patrol.
The number of U.S. deaths since the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan reached the grim milestone of 1,000 last month. More casualties are expected when a NATO-Afghan campaign to clear the Taliban from their southern strongholds kicks into high gear this summer.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged Wednesday that public support for the war in Afghanistan is likely to evaporate unless there is definitive progress showing that the conflict is not a stalemate.
"All of us, for our publics, are going to have to show by the end of the year that our strategy is on the track, making some headway," Gates said ahead of meetings with NATO allies long weary of the war. "The one thing that none of the publics ... including the American public will tolerate is the perception of stalemate in which we're losing young men."
It's not the first time Gates has made such pronouncements. Several times last year he said Americans needed to see progress within a year or 18 months.
U.S. public support for the conflict has decreased despite a period of relatively strong approval after President Obama announced a retooled Afghanistan strategy and 30,000-troop surge last year. Backing also has flagged in Britain, which is America's most important partner in Afghanistan.
While NATO and Afghan troops have the upper hand in many parts of the country, crucial areas remain under Taliban control, with little sign of headway in persuading locals to throw off the insurgents and align with the central government in Kabul.
U.S. commanders hope the coming operation to secure Kandahar will turn the tide of the war in time for American troops to begin withdrawing on Obama's stated timetable starting in July 2011. Helmand province abuts Kandahar.
An attack Wednesday on a U.S. convoy in neighboring Pakistan, however, illustrated the vulnerability of American supply lines. Militants attacked dozens of trucks ferrying vehicles and fuel for Western troops in Afghanistan, killing seven people in a border area where Pakistan had declared the Taliban defeated.
Insurgents have periodically hit NATO's supply lines in Pakistan, but Wednesday's attack was the first to occur so close to the capital, Islamabad. The Associated Press reported that about 60 containers, many carrying vehicles such as Humvees, were damaged in the attack.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson contributed to this report from Kandahar, Afghanistan.
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