WASHINGTON - With the deaths of four U.S. soldiers Tuesday, the U.S.-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan now has lost more troops this year than in all of 2008, and August is on track to be the deadliest month for American troops there since U.S. operations began nearly eight years ago.
The numbers reflect the rising pace of combat in Afghanistan and come at a difficult time, just as Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, is considering asking for more U.S. troops even as opinion polls show that a majority of Americans think the war in Afghanistan isn't worth the cost.
Underscoring the deteriorating situation, a massive explosion late Tuesday shook the southern city of Kandahar, leveling dozens of businesses as people were breaking the daylong fast of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Local officials said at least 37 civilians were killed and another 100 were injured.
Afghans also are awaiting results from the Aug. 20 presidential election as the top candidates claim the lead. A runoff will be held if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the nationwide vote; the protracted uncertainty could lead to more violence. Partial results released Tuesday showed President Hamid Karzai running slightly ahead of his nearest competitor, with 40 percent of the counted votes.
In July, 45 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the highest monthly toll this year. So far in August, 40 Americans have died, many in the south, and Pentagon officials say privately that with nearly a week left in the month, they expect August to exceed July's number. Americans make up the majority of the 63 coalition troops killed so far this month; 75 coalition soldiers died in July.
In 2008, total coalition deaths were 294, 155 of whom were Americans; the 2009 total through Tuesday was 295, of whom 172 were Americans.
There are currently 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
The four Americans who died Tuesday were killed when an explosion hit a convoy in Kandahar province. U.S. officials didn't disclose the identities of the soldiers or of their unit and did not say where the convoy was precisely when it was struck.
Senior U.S. military leaders have warned that troop deaths were likely to rise as the Obama administration sent an additional 17,500 troops and 4,000 trainers to Afghanistan. Those forces began arriving in Afghanistan earlier this summer, including thousands of Marines who launched a major offensive in southern Helmand province. Roughly 6,000 of those forces are still en route.
Under McChrystal, the U.S. is expanding its presence into parts of southern Afghanistan, including Kandahar and Helmand provinces, where coalition forces have never had enough troops to displace the Taliban.
Kandahar city is the country's second-largest and the spiritual capital of the Pashtuns, the ethnic group that comprises virtually all of the Taliban. And more than 90 percent of Afghanistan poppy production comes out of Helmand.
"We are not surprised," said a senior Pentagon officer who asked for anonymity so that he could discuss the casualty figures candidly. "We knew this would happen."
The increase in casualties comes at a time that public support for the war appears to be eroding. A Washington Post-ABC News polls released last week found that for the first time, a majority of Americans don't think the war is worth fighting.
Members of Congress are expressing concerns about U.S. progress in a country known as the graveyard of empires.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a proponent of sending more troops to Afghanistan on Sunday called the trends in Afghanistan "very alarming and disturbing" on ABC News, while Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a member on the Foreign Relations Committee, told his home state's Appleton Post-Crescent newspaper that he wants a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"I think it is time we ought to start discussing a flexible timetable when people in America and Afghanistan and around the world can see where we intend and when we intend to bring our troops out," Feingold said, according to the paper.
Interviews with Afghans show that they are fed up as well. Many say they don't want help from the U.S., the Taliban or their central government; they just want to be left alone.
Haji Agha Lalai, the head of the provincial peace and reconciliation commission and a Kandahar provincial council member, visited the scene shortly after Tuesday night's bombing. In a telephone interview, he said he was told by a police officer that a large tanker truck was moving through the neighborhood when the explosion occurred.
"The houses along a 20-meter (66 foot) section of roadway were completely destroyed," he said.
The bombing happened as there are growing charges of massive fraud in the presidential election, which the U.S. and its allies had hoped would produce a stable government that would cooperate closely on the Obama administration's new strategy for defeating the Taliban-led insurgency.
Preliminary results released Tuesday by the Independent Election Commission showed that with 10 percent of polling stations counted, President Hamid Karzai was running slightly ahead of his closest challenger and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, 40.6 percent to 38.7 percent.
Just before the IEC announced the results, Abdullah intensified his charges that Karzai had used his control over the government to orchestrate a campaign of "wide-scale fraud."
Using stronger language than in previous days, Abdullah warned that he'd "not allow a big fraud to determine the outcome of the election" and would "not make deals" in return for dropping his charges, like accepting a top post in the new government.
Six other candidates issued a joint statement warning that the volume of rigging complaints had many people "seriously questioning the legitimacy and credibility of the results."
Youssef reported from Washington and Landay reported from Kabul. McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor in Kabul contributed to this article.