KABUL – A U.S. service member died Thursday in a militant attack involving a roadside bomb and gunfire, a death that pushed August into a tie with July as the deadliest months of the eight-year war.
The death brings to 44 the number of U.S. troops who have died in Afghanistan this month. But with four days left in the month, August could set a new record.
More than 60,000 U.S. troops are now in the country — a record number — to combat rising insurgent violence. The number of roadside bombs deployed by militants across the country has skyrocketed, and U.S. forces have moved into new and deadlier areas of the country this summer, in part to help secure the country's Aug. 20 presidential election.
Violence is on the rise in Afghanistan even as it falls in Iraq, where nearly twice as many U.S. troops are still based. Five U.S. troops have died in Iraq this month, three fewer than in July.
A statement from the NATO-led force in Kabul said the U.S. service member died in southern Afghanistan when the troop's patrol responded to the bombing and gunfire attack. No other details were released. Thousands of new American troops are operating for the first time in Helmand and Kandahar, two of the country's most dangerous provinces, in part to secure the country's Aug. 20 presidential vote.
Afghan election officials have released two batches of vote tallies that show President Hamid Karzai with 44.8 percent of the vote and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah with 35.1 percent, based on returns from 17 percent of polling stations. The next partial results are expected Saturday.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Afghan forces battled Taliban militants at a medical center in eastern Afghanistan after a Taliban commander sought treatment there, and a U.S. helicopter gunship fired on the clinic after militants put up resistance.
Reports of the militant death toll from Wednesday's firefight varied widely. The spokesman of the governor of Paktika province said 12 militants died, while police said two were killed. The U.S. military did not report any deaths. It wasn't clear why the tolls differed.
The fighting began after a wounded Taliban commander sought treatment at a clinic in the Sar Hawza district of Paktika. Afghan forces went to the center and got in a firefight with militants. U.S. forces later provided backup.
Hamidullah Zhwak, the governor's spokesman, said the Taliban commander was wounded Aug. 20, election day. Militants brought him and three other wounded Taliban to the clinic at noon Wednesday. Afghan forces were tipped off to their presence and soon arrived at the scene, he said.
Insurgent snipers fired from a tower near the clinic, and troops called in an airstrike from U.S. forces, Zhwak said. Fighting between some 20 militants and Afghan and U.S. forces lasted about five hours, and 12 Taliban were killed in the clash, he said.
"After ensuring the clinic was cleared of civilians, an AH-64 Apache helicopter fired rounds at the building ending the direct threat and injuring the targeted insurgent in the building," a U.S. military statement said.
A U.S. military spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Christine Sidenstricker, said the clinic's doctor gave U.S. troops permission to fire on the clinic. After the battle, Afghan and U.S. forces met with villagers and discussed rebuilding the clinic, a U.S. summary of the meeting said.
Villagers expressed "disgust" that militants used the medical center to fire from and that they understood that the action by Afghan and coalition forces was necessary, the summary said.
"The local villagers thanked the Afghanistan National Security Forces for ensuring all civilians were out of harms way before they were forced to use Coalition helicopters to engage the enemy," the summary said.
Seven insurgents — including the wounded commander — had been detained, the U.S. statement said.
Gen. Dawlat Khan, the provincial police chief, said two militants died in the encounter.
The Taliban have gained control of large segments of Afghanistan's south and east over the past few years, prompting the U.S. to send an additional 21,000 troops to the country this year.
The latest clash comes as the war-torn country awaits results from last week's election. The lengthy vote count, coupled with ongoing accusations of fraud, threatens to undermine hopes that Afghans can put together a united front against the insurgency.