KABUL – Roadside bombs — the biggest killer of U.S. soldiers — claimed eight more American lives Tuesday, driving the U.S. death toll to a record level for the third time in four months asnears a decision on a new strategy for the troubled war.
The homemade bombs, also called improvised explosive devices or IEDs, are responsible for between 70 percent and 80 percent of the casualties among U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan and have become a weapon of "strategic influence," said Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz in Washington.
The attacks Tuesday followed one of the deadliest days for the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan — grim milestones likely to fuel the debate in the United States over whether the conflict is worth the sacrifice.
Obama has nearly finished gathering information on whether to send tens of thousands more American forces to quell the deepening insurgency, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. A meeting Friday with the will be among the last events in the decision-making process, Gibbs said.
Both attacks Tuesday took place in the southern province of Kandahar, said Capt. Adam Weece, a spokesman for American forces in the south. The region bordering the Pakistan frontier has long been an insurgent stronghold and was the birthplace of the in the 1990s.
The Americans were patrolling in armored vehicles when a bomb ripped through one of them, killing seven service members and an Afghan civilian, U.S. forces spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said.
The eighth American died in a separate bombing elsewhere in the south, also while patrolling in a military vehicle, Vician said.
The number of effective IED attacks in Afghanistan has grown from 19 in September 2007 to 106 last month.
"It's a weapon system that the enemy has figured out has strategic impact," said Metz, who leads the U.S. military organization tasked with defeating improvised explosive devices. "It really hampers our ability to execute a counterinsurgency doctrine. And it's a weapon system that has to be fought, and I don't think we can back off or shy away from fighting it."
Nine coalition forces were killed and 37 were wounded by IEDs in Afghanistan in September 2007. In September 2009, 37 coalition forces were killed and 285 were wounded by IEDs, according to the figures.
Several other Americans were wounded in the Tuesday blasts. The military said the deaths occurred during "multiple, complex" bomb strikes, but gave no details.
"Complex" attacks usually refer to simultaneous assaults from multiple sides with various weapons — including bombs, machine guns and grenades or rockets.
In Washington, a U.S. defense official said at least one of the attacks was followed by an intense firefight with insurgents after an initial bomb went off. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
The casualties bring to 55 the total number of Americans killed in October in Afghanistan. The next highest toll was in August, when 51 U.S. soldiers died and the troubled nation held the first round of its presidential election amid a wave of violence.
By comparison, the deadliest month of the Iraq conflict for U.S. forces was November 2004, when 137 Americans died during a major assault to clear insurgents from the city of Fallujah.
"A loss like this is extremely difficult for the families as well as for those who served alongside these brave service members," said Navy Capt. Jane Campbell, a military spokeswoman. "Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends who mourn their loss."
The deaths came one day after 11 American soldiers were killed in separate helicopter crashes, marking the biggest loss of American life on a single day in four years.
One chopper went down in western Afghanistan as it left the scene of a gunbattle with insurgents. Seven soldiers were killed along with three Drug Enforcement Administration agents — the agency's first deaths since it began operations here in 2005. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and the trade is a major source of funding for insurgent groups.
Two other U.S. choppers collided while in flight in the south Monday, killing four Americans.
Casualties swelled at the start of the month when eight U.S. soldiers were killed Oct. 3. Several hundred militants had launched a coordinated attack on a pair of remote U.S. outposts in mountainous Nuristan province's Kamdesh district. U.S. troops pulled out days later as part a new strategy by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to shut down difficult-to-defend posts and redirect forces toward larger population areas to protect more civilians.
Also Tuesday, NATO-led forces announced they had recovered the remains of three American military contractors from the wreckage of a U.S. Army reconnaissance plane that crashed two weeks ago in Nuristan.
The trio was employed under a Lockheed Martin contract for "counter-narcoterrorism" operations, said Thomas Casey, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Corp. He said the pilot and co-pilot worked for a company called Avenge Inc., while the technician was employed by a contractor called Sierra Nevada Corp.
The Armytwin-engine turboprop went down Oct. 13 while on a routine mission. The military likely delayed announcing the crash site's location because it did not want to tip off insurgents. Nuristan is believed to be crawling with anti-American militants.
U.S. forces spokesman Col. Wayne Shanks said the crew were the only ones aboard when the craft went down without giving off any distress signal. "We just lost contact," Shanks told The Associated Press.
it was investigating the crash and did not believe hostile fire was involved.
The military also said a UH-60 helicopter traveling to the crash site four days later "experienced a strong downdraft and performed a hard landing" nearby. The helicopter's crew members were rescued, and the chopper was stripped of sensitive and useable parts and destroyed to keep insurgents from salvaging anything in the wreckage.
Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt and Robert H. Reid in Kabul and Pauline Jelinek and Richard Lardner in Washington contributed to this report.