KABUL (Reuters) - The number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan in 2010 neared 700 with two more confirmed on Saturday, by far the deadliest year of the war underscoring the renewed focus on when international forces will leave.
The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said one of its troops was killed by a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the Taliban, and another in an attack by insurgents in the volatile east.
It gave no other details, including their nationalities.
Those deaths took the 2010 toll to 699, according to figures kept by Reuters and monitoring website www.iCasualties.org.
A total of 521 foreign troops were killed in 2009, previously the worst year of the war, but operations against the Taliban-led insurgency have increased over the past 18 months.
About 2,270 foreign troops have been killed since the war began, roughly two-thirds of them Americans. Afghan forces have suffered far more but exact casualty figures are not available.
The deaths came two days after U.S. President Barack Obama released a review of his strategy in the increasingly unpopular war, and will be a sobering reminder of the high human toll that has made some of Obama’s European allies waiver.
Chancellor Angela Merkel made an unannounced visit to German troops serving in the north on Saturday. The war has created deep divisions in Germany, the third-largest contributor of foreign troops.
Washington’s review found U.S. and NATO forces were making headway against the Taliban and al Qaeda but serious challenges remain.
Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since the Islamist Taliban were ousted by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, with civilian and military deaths at record highs despite the presence of about 150,000 foreign troops.
The insurgency has spread out of its traditional strongholds in the south and east over the past two years into once peaceful areas of the north and west, forcing NATO troops to go on the offensive. Obama ordered in an extra 30,000 troops a year ago.
NATO leaders agreed at a summit in Lisbon last month to end combat operations and hand security responsibility to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. Obama has promised to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from July 2011.
But critics say the 2014 target is too ambitious and that setting a withdrawal target emboldens the insurgents.
It also relies on sufficient Afghan troops and police being ready in time to take security responsibility, a mission military commanders acknowledge is going slowly because of problems with training, equipment, high rates of illiteracy and drug addiction and poor retention rates among Afghan police and soldiers.
“I am leaving with the impression that, while there is still an endless amount to do, progress is also becoming evident in our very close involvement in the training ... of Afghan forces,” Merkel told reporters in northern Kunduz.
She spoke after meeting Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Karzai has been criticised by Western leaders because of what they see as endemic corruption in his government, weakening its control and making it harder to build state institutions such as the judiciary and security forces to allow for foreign forces to withdraw.
Karzai described the meeting with Merkel as “good and constructive” but said corruption had not been discussed.
European leaders in particular have come under pressure to withdraw their combat troops or to change their roles to training missions.
Disputes over the war in Afghanistan brought down a Dutch government in February and a German president in May. The Netherlands has since withdrawn its combat troops.
In September 2009, an air strike by U.S. fighter jets, ordered by German troops, killed almost 100 people, including at least 30 civilians, according to the Afghanistan government. The then German defence minister resigned.
Germany has almost 4,700 troops in Afghanistan, mainly in the north. Merkel’s government will seek a renewed parliamentary mandate for the mission early next year. At least 45 German troops have been killed since the war began.
Additional reporting by Tilman Blasshofer in Kunduz; Oliver Keck in Berlin; Editing by Janet Lawrence