KABUL: Six US soldiers were killed in Afghanistan on Wednesday as Italy became the latest NATO ally to detail plans to scale down its military presence and hand over territory to Afghan forces by the end of 2011.
Four of the soldiers were killed in a single bomb attack in the south, where the Taliban have concentrated their nine-year fight against the Western-backed government and where Western troops are suffering the most casualties.
The US-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said a fifth soldier was killed in another bomb attack in the south and a sixth while fighting rebels in eastern Afghanistan, another insurgent stronghold.
A US defence official, who requested anonymity, told AFP that all six soldiers killed were Americans. It is ISAF policy not to reveal the nationalities of troops killed in action.
Bombs known as IEDs — improvised explosive devices — are the weapons of choice for the Taliban and other insurgents fighting heavily armed Western and Afghan troops.
The war is in its deadliest year. Around 152,000 foreign troops under US and NATO command are fighting a Taliban insurgency that has steadily expanded since the 2001 US-led invasion brought down their regime.
At least 581 foreign soldiers have been killed this year, eclipsing the previous record of 521 in 2009. The AFP tally is based on a count by the independent website icasualties.org.
Western public opinion is growing increasingly tired of the war, angry over corruption within President Hamid Karzai’s government and mounting casualties as the conflict pushes into its 10th year.
In Italy the defence minister said Wednesday that his government plans to hand over control of large parts of western Afghanistan to local authorities by the end of 2011, leaving only a training mission.
“By 2011 we hope that our mission will be only to train the police force and the Afghan army,” Ignazio La Russa told the Italian Senate, after the funeral this week of four Italian soldiers killed in a single attack.
Italy is the fifth largest contributor of foreign troops in Afghanistan, deploying around 3,400 troops on the ground. That number is expected to rise to around 4,000 by the end of this year.
Foreign Minister Franco Frattini said this week that Italy planned to start pulling troops from Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 and complete the withdrawal in 2014.
Canada, which is the sixth largest contributor of troops, has already said it intends to pull its estimated 2,830 troops out of the south in 2011.
Asked to comment on the impending troop drawdowns, a spokesman for Karzai said Italy and Canada were “good friends of the people of Afghanistan” and have helped tremendously in reconstruction.
“We have not been approached officially with this message and Afghanistan will relay its stance on the issue once we have an official word from one or both of these countries,” spokesman Waheed Omer told AFP.
Afghan officials have said they would prefer the international community to concentrate on training more local security forces instead of deploying “high cost” international troops.
The surge in military deaths has followed the deployment of about 40,000 extra US and NATO troops under a White House strategy designed to clear major towns and cities of the Taliban and restore confidence in the government.
In unveiling the extra troops late last year, US President Barack Obama said that he wanted American troops to start withdrawing from July 2011.
But his top general on the ground, David Petraeus, has since said that a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan will be gradual and not be a brusque “lights out” next August.
Karzai has also redoubled efforts to patch up a deal with rebels who distance themselves from Al-Qaeda, inaugurating a High Council for Peace that has been dismissed by critics as a collection of warlords.
A NATO official in Brussels said the alliance sometimes allowed Taliban fighters to travel to Kabul to hold talks with the Afghan government as part of efforts to support Karzai’s peace negotiations.
But the Taliban denied a claim made by Karzai in a CNN interview on Monday that they were in talks, US monitors said.
The Taliban said on their website that the claims were “futile rumours,” according to SITE Intelligence Group.