A helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan earlier this morning killed nine NATO troops, making 2010 the deadliest year of the Afghan war and highlighting the difficult strategic choices confronting the Obama administration as it seeks a way forward there.
With the crash, the Western death toll in Afghanistan through the first nine months of 2010 rose to 529, exceeding last year's toll of 521, which had been the previous record for the nine-year-old conflict. By contrast, 295 troops died in all of 2008.
Officials with the International Security Assistance Force said the chopper went down in Zabul province, which has been the scene of intensifying Western military operations in advance of a major effort to push the Taliban out of neighboring Kandahar, the armed group's spiritual birthplace.
In a written statement, the NATO command in Kabul said there were no indications that the Taliban had shot down the helicopter and said that the cause of the crash was under investigation. Afghanistan's mountainous terrain and harsh winds have been linked to several earlier crashes.
Capt. Gary Kirchner, an ISAF spokesman, said allied forces were in the process of recovering the downed aircraft and notifying the families of the troops killed in the crash, which also wounded a coalition soldier, a U.S. civilian and an Afghan soldier.
Kirchner declined to identify the nationalities of the dead troops. The vast bulk of the forces operating near Zabul are American or British, however, making it likely that the fallen troops came from one or both of the countries.
The crash comes in the midst of a difficult period for ISAF commanders and White House policymakers, who are trying to gauge whether the troop surge ordered by President Obama last year as part of a broader shift to a full-fledged counterinsurgency campaign is making progress there.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Kabul, has said that he believes the current strategy is beginning to show results. Petraeus has said that elite Special Operations forces have killed or captured thousands of Taliban militants in recent months, making some fighters more amenable to reconciling with the Afghan government. Petraeus and his top aides also argue that Western and Afghan forces are doing a better job of protecting Afghan civilians from violence and intimidation, particularly in Kandahar and other parts of southern Afghanistan.
The White House is planning to do a full-scale war review in December. Administration officials have been lowering expectations of a major shift in the overall U.S. approach and signaling that Obama and his war cabinet believe the strategy is basically on target.
But many in the military, the State Department and outside of government have been questioning those relatively rosy assessments, noting that the Taliban have taken control of growing swaths of the country while inflicting a steadily rising number of Western and Afghan casualties.
Critics of the current approach also believe that the Afghan government is riddled by so much fraud and corruption that it has lost popular support which it is unlikely to regain. The country's main bank, for instance, has all but collapsed amid growing questions about whether relatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other top officials used the bank's funds to improperly enrich themselves and their political allies.
Afghanistan held a parliamentary election on Saturday that lends credence to each side's arguments, depending on one's perspective.
Four million Afghans turned out to vote despite Taliban threats to disrupt the balloting, and Western observers in many Afghan cities say the voting proceeded relatively smoothly in those locations. President Obama hailed the election as a victory for the Afghan people.
On the other hand, the Taliban managed to stage more than 100 attacks across the country, killing at least a dozen people and pushing overall voter turnout down to a new record low. United Nations officials, meanwhile, have cautioned that the votes may well have been marred by widespread fraud.