New York Times
August 7, 2008
By Kirk Semple and Andrew W. Lehren
Not long after Staff Sgt. Matthew D. Blaskowski was killed by a sniper’s bullet last Sept. 23 in eastern Afghanistan, his mother received an e-mail message with a link to a video on the Internet. A television reporter happened to have been filming a story at Sergeant Blaskowski’s small mountain outpost when it came under fire and the sergeant was shot.
Since then, Sergeant Blaskowski’s parents, Cheryl and Terry Blaskowski of Cheboygan, Mich., have watched their 27-year-old son die over and over. Ms. Blaskowski has taken breaks from work to watch it on her computer, sometimes several times a day, studying her son’s last movements.
“Anything to be closer,” she said. “To see what could have been different, how it — ” the bullet — “happened to find him.”
For months, the Blaskowskis felt alone in watching their son die in an isolated and nearly forgotten war. And then, in June, the war in Afghanistan roared back into public view when American deaths from hostilities exceeded those in Iraq. In the face of an expanding threat from the Taliban, the conflict is becoming deadlier and much more violent for American troops, who three weeks ago reached their highest deployment levels ever, at 36,000.
June was the second deadliest month for the military in Afghanistan since the war began, with 23 American deaths from hostilities, compared with 22 in Iraq. July was less deadly, with 20 deaths, compared with six in Iraq. On July 22, nearly seven years after the conflict began on Oct. 7, 2001, the United States lost its 500th soldier in the Afghanistan war.
(The Pentagon says that 563 American service members have died in Operation Enduring Freedom, the umbrella term for the global American-led antiterror campaign that has the Afghanistan war at its center and includes deployments in the Philippines and Africa. Of those deaths, according to an analysis by The New York Times, 510 have occurred in Afghanistan or are directly linked to the war there.)
Now, a war that had long been overshadowed by the one in Iraq is back in public view, at the forefront of both news media attention and the presidential campaign. The use of the Afghanistan war for political purposes disheartens the Blaskowskis, they say, but has at least one positive aspect.
“The good thing about the heightened awareness now is that at least some of these soldiers’ names are getting out there,” Ms. Blaskowski said recently. “If anything good is coming out of that media attention, it’s that people see that they are truly human. It’s not just numbers. It’s actually brothers and sons and fathers. They’re human.”
The numbers, as impersonal as they may be, are quickly mounting, and more families each week are joining the Blaskowskis in their grief.
During the first three years of the war, about two-thirds of all American casualties came under so-called nonhostile conditions — illnesses, vehicle crashes and accidental discharges of weapons, for example.
But that pattern flipped in 2005. Since then, about 70 percent of American casualties in Afghanistan have occurred under hostile conditions, like small-arms fire, rocket attacks and, increasingly, improvised mines and bombs.
In 2007, 111 American service members were killed, the highest annual toll so far in the war. So far this year, 91 Americans have died, a rate faster than last year. At least 78 of those deaths have come in combat; by comparison, 50 were killed during the same period last year.
Though Afghan security forces have suffered the vast majority of fatalities in the war, exact numbers are hard to come by. The Defense Ministry said that nearly 600 Afghan soldiers were killed from March 2005 to March 2008, the only period for which it provided statistics. The Afghan Interior Ministry, which began recording police deaths in March 2007, said 1,119 police officers were killed from March 2007 to March 2008.
Late last month, the military released data showing that insurgent activity had soared, with attacks in eastern border regions up nearly 40 percent from last year.
“Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan,” the Atlantic Council of the United States, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to fostering ties between North America and Europe, warned in a report in January. “Unless this reality is understood and action is taken promptly, the future of Afghanistan is bleak.”
The report was actually one of the more positive assessments among a deluge of critical reports on the war’s progress issued this year by international study groups.
Such dark warnings, along with years of low interest in the conflict among many Americans and even political candidates, have led the families and friends of fallen American service members to wonder whether they perished for a winning cause, a losing one or, worse, a meaningless one.
“It’s like people forget about us being in Afghanistan; Larry would tell me that all the time,” said David Rougle, whose brother, Staff Sgt. Larry I. Rougle, 25, of West Jordan, Utah, was killed in a Taliban ambush last October in Kunar Province. “You always hear about Iraq, but you never hear about Afghanistan.”
“People have forgotten,” Mr. Rougle said. “There’s a real war going on. People are dying all the time in Afghanistan.” The War Begins to Change
On Oct. 10, 2001, three days after American and British warplanes began bombing Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan to open the war, Master Sgt. Evander E. Andrews, 36, was part of a military work crew building a runway at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which was being used to stage American troops and warplanes.
Sergeant Andrews was a hard-working man who grew up on his family’s farm in the small town of Solon in central Maine. “He loved the farm and he loved the cows, and he’d come home from leave and go out in the barn and take a deep breath and say, ‘Oh, that smells good!’ ” recalled his mother, Mary Andrews. “Now, who else would say that?”
As a boy, he had developed a fascination for trucks and other big equipment. He joined the military to further his goal of becoming a civil engineer and was assigned to the 366th Civil Engineer Squadron of the Air Force.
On that October day, a forklift was removing the tailgate of a large truck when the gate fell from the forklift’s grasp and hit Sergeant Andrews, killing him. He became the first American fatality in the war.
It was a war of retaliation and pursuit. After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush administration demanded that the Taliban government surrender Osama bin Laden, who was commanding the Qaeda network from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s refusal prompted the start of the American bombing campaign on Oct. 7.
By that time, an American force numbering in the tens of thousands had been marshaled across a military theater stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea to fight the new war on terror, an amorphous campaign with Afghanistan at its heart. But during the first few months, the actual American presence within Afghanistan was sparse, with much of the fighting conducted by anti-Taliban opposition groups supported by American advisers on the ground and by coalition airpower.
Not only were most of the first 100 Americans to die in the war killed in accidents or illnesses rather than attacks, but almost half also died outside the main theater, across a regional network of supply bases and refueling outposts. It would be many months before combat deaths began to take a heavy toll.
Mary Andrews said it had been easier to deal with her son’s death because it came as a result of an accident rather than from enemy fire.
“We were thankful that he died at the hands of his own men that he loved, and not at the hands of those who hated him and hated all Americans,” she said. “If someone out of hate killed him, it’s kind of a double grief. But it wasn’t someone out of hate. It was someone who loved him, someone who cared about him.”
“I’m not saying it’s easy getting along without him,” she continued, “but it’s easier to think about it that way.”
After the initial bombing campaign, Afghan militia forces backed by American and other foreign troops swept the Taliban from power and, by the end of March 2002, had driven most of the surviving Qaeda and Taliban fighters across the border into Pakistan or into hiding in southern Afghanistan.
Afghanistan then appeared to enter a period of relative stability. In April, President Bush made a speech promising a vast American-led reconstruction effort in the style of the Marshall Plan, and in the summer, a transitional administration was established under Hamid Karzai. American generals increased American troop levels in Afghanistan to about 9,700 by the end of the year, most with a mandate to hunt for the remnants of Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
In total, 11 Americans died in connection with the war in 2001, 49 in 2002, and 46 in 2003.
But meanwhile, the Taliban was quietly regrouping. Through recruitment drives in the Pashtun-dominated communities of southern Afghanistan and the madrassas of Pakistan, and low-key infiltration from Pakistan into southern Afghanistan, the Taliban began to rebuild its shrunken forces and prepare for a renewed jihad against Afghan and foreign troops.
Guerrilla attacks against American troops and their allies steadily increased throughout 2002 and 2003, and in 2004, the nature of the war, and of American casualties, began to shift. Nonhostile causes continued to inflict the majority of deaths that year, including the accident from American fire in eastern Afghanistan that killed Pat Tillman, the former safety for the Arizona Cardinals and arguably the most famous American casualty in the war. But an increasing percentage of soldiers was dying from insurgent gunfire, rockets and bombs.
One was Specialist Joseph A. Jeffries of the Army Reserve’s 320th Psychological Operations Company. When Specialist Jeffries was deployed to Afghanistan in February 2004, he told his family little about the danger he was facing.
“He kind of led me to believe that it was more cushy than it was,” said his wife, Betsy Jeffries, who lives in Beaverton, Ore. They had married shortly before his deployment, and she was pregnant when he shipped off. His obfuscation “was his way of sheltering me,” Ms. Jeffries said, adding that her husband had joined the military to improve people’s lives.
Specialist Jeffries was sent to southeastern Afghanistan to work with Special Forces soldiers from Fort Bragg, N.C. Citing secrecy rules, military officials would not reveal the details of his assignments, though Special Forces units have often been engaged in dangerous tasks like hunting down the chief Taliban and Qaeda operatives.
As a psychological operations expert, Specialist Jeffries would have had a variety of duties with Special Forces teams, said Tina Beller, a spokeswoman for the Army’s Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command at Fort Bragg. Such experts acted as liaisons between the Green Berets and local residents they encountered, and distributed leaflets and other information that discouraged support for the insurgency and urged support for the coalition.
On May 29, 2004, Specialist Jeffries was in a Humvee returning to his base in Kandahar Province from an undisclosed mission when a series of mines planted in a mountain pass exploded near his vehicle, Ms. Jeffries said. He and three other American servicemen, including a Navy Seal and two Green Berets, were killed. Specialist Jeffries was 21.
May 2004 was the beginning of a stretch of six months during which hostile acts were to blame for the majority of American deaths. Looking back, that period now appears to be something of a tipping point for American forces in the war. Nearly half of the 51 Americans killed that year died as a result of hostile action, up from about 37 percent in 2002 and 2003.
And the battle was about to get far deadlier for the Americans. The Taliban Return
Back home, a sense of victory in Afghanistan, however premature or misguided, had taken hold, and the war had begun to fade from the American consciousness, eclipsed by the much larger, newer American-led effort in Iraq, which began in March 2003.
When Sgt. Michael J. Kelley, 26, of Scituate, Mass., announced in early 2005 that he was going to Afghanistan, members of his family were heartened that it was not Iraq, where the insurgency was already virulent and widespread, and the conflict seemed far more dangerous. Relief was a common response among parents and relatives of American soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.
“You don’t hear as much about Afghanistan,” said Sergeant Kelley’s mother, Karen Kelley.
Sergeant Kelley was a quiet man who read a lot, liked to draw and talked about becoming a graphic artist when he had fulfilled his military obligations. Uninterested in college, he had joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard after graduating from high school and, in his civilian life, held a series of jobs including landscaper and cellphone salesman.
His mother maintained a brave face as her son left for Central Asia, accepting his assurances that he would be all right, but silently harboring a grim premonition that he would not return home.
Sergeant Kelley was deployed to a small, rugged Special Forces outpost in Shkin, in the eastern border province of Paktika, where the Green Berets had been in frequent combat with Taliban rebels. As a field artillery radar operator, his duty was to use radar to locate the source of enemy mortars and rockets to guide accurate counterfire.
On June 8, 2005, the base was hit with a barrage of mortars. But Sergeant Kelley had no chance to do his job. At the moment of attack, he was part of a team unloading a Chinook helicopter. The mortar hit the helicopter landing zone, spraying shrapnel and killing Sergeant Kelley and another soldier, Pfc. Emmanuel Hernandez, 22, of Yauco, P.R.
“We were just fortunate that we were able to have an open casket,” Ms. Kelley said. “It brought some kind of closure because we didn’t have to wonder whether he was really in there. Other families aren’t so lucky.”
The two deaths came amid a surge of fatalities. At least 27 Americans died that June, 25 from hostile causes, making it the deadliest month of the war up to that point for American service members. It remains the second deadliest month in the war for American troops, and the deadliest ranked by those who died in hostile conditions.
The month also saw the single deadliest attack of the war so far for Americans: the downing of a Chinook helicopter by an insurgent’s rocket-propelled grenade, which killed all 16 service members on board. The men were on a mission to rescue a team of Navy Seals that had been reported missing in Kunar Province near the Pakistan border.
In all, 95 Americans died in Afghanistan in 2005, up from 51 in 2004, and for the first time in the war, hostile deaths in Operation Enduring Freedom outpaced nonhostile deaths. The year 2005 also saw a leap in the Taliban’s use of homemade bombs — improvised explosive devices, or I.E.D.s, in military parlance — most often buried in dirt roads. They were no less deadly than they were proving to be in Iraq.
The terrain was ideal for laying traps and hiding bombs. Many American troops were based in mountainous areas that lacked paved roads, and were vulnerable to mines buried in the dirt roadways. They were often forced to conduct their patrols on foot, walking from village to village along goat paths and dried riverbeds, and through narrow rocky passes susceptible to ambushes. (This year, for the first time, more than half of all hostile deaths have been attributed to improvised explosive devices.)
Beginning in 2006, the United States would begin to share the burden of casualties with its foreign partners in greater numbers than ever.
That year, NATO expanded its range of military operations in Afghanistan, and thousands of British, Canadian and Dutch troops under NATO command — supplemented by Australian, Estonian, Danish and Romanian soldiers — replaced the several hundred American troops that had been trying to fend off a return of the Taliban to its former strongholds in the Pashtun heartland of the south.
As the newly arriving troops began to enter the most insecure areas, they encountered a reconstituted Taliban.
At least 39 British troops and 36 Canadian troops died in 2006; in the four previous years, the British had suffered five fatalities and the Canadians seven.
The death toll remained high for American troops, who, by the end of 2006, numbered about 22,100, most concentrated in the east and southeast. That year, 87 Americans were killed, most in insurgent attacks, and an additional 111 in 2007.
Many of the American casualties during the last two years came where American troops, with the support of the Afghan army, were pushing into areas that were under the sway of Taliban insurgents.
“The areas we moved into had not had a large constant U.S. presence,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Carabello of the 10th Mountain Division. His battalion, the First Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, had responsibility for the security of a large mountainous swath of eastern Afghanistan from the spring of 2006 to the summer of 2007.
Over the course of its deployment, the battalion established a constellation of bases and outposts in a series of rugged valleys that had served as corridors for insurgents moving men and supplies from western Pakistan. The 10th Mountain Division soldiers also built roads, schools and medical clinics, and brought government services to villages that had seen none, Sergeant Major Carabello said. The improvements stimulated local economies and began to reconnect the central government to the people of the region.
But the gains came at great sacrifice to the troops. Twenty of his battalion’s soldiers were killed in the campaign, most in fighting against the Taliban, and more than 120 were wounded, Sergeant Major Carabello said.
“It was a tough fight,” he said. “It was hard, tough soldiering.”
Sgt. First Class Jeffrey D. Kettle, 30, of Texas City, Tex., was deployed with the Second Battalion, Seventh Special Forces Group into this same region in early 2006. It was his second rotation in Afghanistan. Sergeant Kettle was a construction and demolition engineer, his family said, and had hoped to join the elite Delta Force.
He joined the Army after graduating from high school, following several relatives into the armed services, including his grandfather, who had participated in the D-Day landings in World War II. When he was a boy, he was fascinated by the military. He and one of his brothers, Clayton, would don camouflage clothes and face paint and wage mock battles against imaginary guerrillas in their neighborhood.
“They would be in the bushes, in trees, on roofs,” recalled their mother, Cynthia Kettle. “I would get phone calls. ‘Cindy, don’t panic or anything, but Jeffrey is on the roof again.’ He had no fear.”
Like so many other service members deployed to war zones, he tried to shield his parents from the harsher realities of his life. But during one phone conversation he revealed to his mother that the Taliban was growing stronger.
“He told me, ‘Mom, they’re rebounding.’ That was the word he used, I believe,” Ms. Kettle recalled. “He said, ‘It’s going to get worse before it gets better.’ So I knew things weren’t as tame as it was put out to be.”
On Aug. 12, 2007, a bomb buried by the roadway exploded near Sergeant Kettle’s vehicle in the eastern Afghanistan province of Nangarhar, killing him and two other American soldiers.
“There weren’t I.E.D.s when Jeff was there the first time,” Ms. Kettle said. “And now they’re getting all the things that Iraq has and they’re bringing in those heinous ways of killing. As I gather, this I.E.D. was ridiculously large. It’s the easiest and most cowardly way of doing things.” A Search for Meaning
Louis Brewster’s son, Sgt. Bryan A. Brewster, 24, of Fontana, Calif., died with nine others in May 2006 after their Chinook helicopter developed a mechanical failure and plunged into a deep ravine in Kunar Province. Ever since, Mr. Brewster has scoured the news media in a determined search for news of his son’s distant war.
“Outside the Pat Tillman thing, people don’t remember it,” Mr. Brewster said. “As a father it angers me some. It angered me when he was there, especially since Iraq gets all the attention, Iraq gets all the money.”
But for Mr. Brewster and many other parents and relatives, the sense of a forgotten loss is more than personal. Many are convinced that the public’s neglect of the war in Afghanistan is actually hurting the soldiers’ chances of success.
“It is my sense that it is a pivotal time in this thing,” Mr. Brewster said. “I think it’s a valid war, but because it doesn’t get the attention, it doesn’t get all it needs. Consequently, I think the guerrilla war will be going for a long time.”
NATO commanders have said they need at least three more brigades — more than 7,500 troops — to turn the conflict decisively in the American-led coalition’s favor. And numerous analysts, international study groups and nongovernmental organizations have warned that in the absence of a redoubled commitment by the United States’ allies, the American-led coalition’s chances of success look poor.
“Afghanistan is not lost, but the signs are not good,” said the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan group that tries to prevent global conflict, in a February report. “As a reinvigorated insurgency threatens the gains that have been made, and Western capitals, pressured by publics unwilling to accept military casualties, begin to explore endgames and exit strategies, the risk of losing Afghanistan is very real.”
On the video clip from last year that the Blaskowskis have seen so many times, Sergeant Blaskowski is standing calmly with two other men at the dirt-filled bastions of their outpost, near the Pakistani border. They are wearing full body armor and their backs are to the camera as they survey the valley below, a hideout of Taliban insurgents and the scene of some of the fiercest fighting American troops had experienced in Afghanistan since the invasion in 2001.
The camera cuts away from the men, then the sound of gunfire erupts, sending soldiers scrambling for cover. In the next shot, the gunfire has stopped and a lieutenant standing near the gabions screams for a medic. A soldier has been hit: Sergeant Blaskowski. A medevac helicopter swoops in to evacuate him to a larger base, but he is declared dead en route.
The images have provided Ms. Blaskowski with “some peace,” she said, yet in the same breath she admitted to a hope that her son would come back someday.
“I think it isn’t true, and he will call in the middle of the night like he used to,” she said. “We would sleep lightly to listen for that blessed phone call.”
“Now,” she added, “we don’t sleep well at all.”