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US deaths spike in Afghanistan

KABUL - U.S. deaths in Afghanistan increased threefold during the first two months of 2009 compared with the same period last year, after thousands more troops deployed and commanders ramped up winter operations against an increasingly violent insurgency.

As troops pour into the country and violence rises, another sobering measure has also increased: More Afghan civilians are dying in U.S. and allied operations than at the hands of the Taliban, according to a count by The Associated Press. In the first two months of the year, U.S., NATO or Afghan forces have killed 100 civilians, while militants have killed 60.

President Barack Obama recently announced the deployment of 17,000 additional troops to bolster 38,000 already in the country, increasing the U.S. focus on Afghanistan while a drawdown begins in Iraq. The latest casualty toll among U.S. forces could portend a deadlier year in Afghanistan than the U.S. military has experienced since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.

'I think that because you are going to see that additional engagement, there is a risk of greater additional casualties in the short term, just as there was in Iraq,' Obama told the Pentagon Channel on Friday from Camp Lejeune, N.C. 'That is something we will have to monitor very carefully.'

Twenty-nine U.S. troops died in Afghanistan the first two months of 2009 - compared with eight Americans in the first two months of 2008.

Part of the increase is due to the influx of troops. In early 2008 there were about 27,000 forces in the country, some 10,000 fewer than today.

But U.S. troops are also operating in new, dangerous areas. A brigade of 10th Mountain Division soldiers deployed to two insurgent-heavy provinces outside Kabul in January - Wardak and Logar. And American forces are increasingly operating in Taliban heartland in the south.

'It has a lot to do with the fact that we have a presence in places and going into places and disrupting insurgents in area where they haven't been bothered much,' Col. Greg Julian, the top U.S. spokesman in Afghanistan, said Saturday. That, he said, means more battles and more attacks.

American troop deaths occurred at a much higher rate in Afghanistan than in Iraq in January and February. Thirty-one U.S. forces have died in Iraq so far this year, but there are roughly 140,000 American troops in Iraq, more than three times the number in Afghanistan.

The decreasing U.S. death toll in Iraq coincides with an overall decline in violence largely attributed to a cease-fire by anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and a Sunni decision to join forces with the Americans against al-Qaida in Iraq.

Julian said that troops in Afghanistan have 'maintained the pressure throughout the winter months' this season, though in previous years there had been a lull.