Over the weekend, the Taliban had offered only light resistance in Helmand Province. The southern region became the scene last week of the first major ground assault by US forces since President Obama ordered 21,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.
But on Monday, insurgents dealt US forces around Afghanistan one of their deadliest days since 2001, with roadside bombs and a firefight in three separate parts of the country. The Taliban also delivered propaganda barbs, claiming to be holding a missing US soldier and outlining a strategy in an Agence France-Presse interview to use "mines and guerrilla attacks" to punish the marines in Helmand.
Analysts suspect that US and NATO troops in Helmand will continue to see mostly the backs of Taliban fighters during the ground offensive, only to have guerrillas retaliate elsewhere. And American casualties could rise given the drive to take back Taliban regions and to do so with less reliance on air power and mortars.
"I don't think it's any coincidence: This is a response to the major operation. And it's one where the types of attacks we saw yesterday we will see again, it's not a one-off," says Sajjan Gohel, a security analyst with the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London.
On Monday, roadside bombs killed four US soldiers in the province of Kunduz and another two in southern Zabul Province. An insurgent attack killed another soldier in eastern Paktia Province. Meanwhile, three NATO soldiers (one British, two Canadian) died Monday when a helicopter crashed; officials said insurgent fire wasn't involved. And today, a hand grenade tossed into a police vehicle in eastern Khost Province killed one civilian and wounded 28 others. Five British troops have died in the past week.
"I think it shows their coordination," says Dr. Gohel. "The Taliban is trying to send a message that it isn't just located in the south, but it is nationally able to strike at the time of their choosing."
With more troops and ground operations, it would not be surprising to see more casualties. In the case of the Iraq surge, the months during and immediately following the troop buildup saw a spike in US soldiers killed before the numbers fell dramatically.
"More troops are definitely required in Afghanistan and that will possibly mean more casualties. But you cannot defeat the Taliban without putting in more," says Gohel.
Adding to the US troop exposure, the new commander of American forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, released a tactical directive Monday that curtails the use of airstrikes to "very limited" situations.
"Commanders must weigh the gain of using [close air support] against the cost of civilian casualties, which in the long run make mission success more difficult and turn the Afghan people against us," the directive says.
Another NATO ally is also recognizing the gravity of civilian casualties, with reports this weekend that the Australian military is conducting three separate investigations into incidents involving six civilian deaths.
Some welcome news for the troops did emerge Monday out of Russia. On a visit to Moscow, Mr. Obama inked a deal with his counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev, that allows up to 4,500 military flights to cross over Russian airspace en route to Afghanistan. The permissions – free of charge and civilian-only restrictions – helps relieve supply line pressures for the American effort in Afghanistan.