A roadside bomb killed a British soldier in southern Afghanistan, the military said on Friday, as defense officials in London said they may need to deploy even more troops in the fight against the Taliban.
July has already reached record monthly casualty levels for foreign troops in the eight-year-old war, with U.S. Marines and British soldiers launching major operations in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold in the south.
Civilians are also suffering more in an escalating fight. Nine members of the same family were killed by a roadside bomb in Kandahar, the Taliban's birthplace in the south.
With Washington identifying the fight against the Taliban as its major military priority, the U.S. and British operations are the first major offensives under U.S. President Barack Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Islamist insurgents.
The death of the British soldier on Thursday near Gereshk, the main industrial city in Helmand, took the toll for foreign troops in Afghanistan in July to at least 47, the highest monthly total of the war since the Taliban was toppled in 2001.
The previous monthly highs of 46 were set in June and August of 2008.
The soaring death tolls have sparked fierce political debate in Britain over whether its troops are adequately equipped, whether it has enough soldiers on the ground and whether they should even be there at all.
Britain has boosted its troop levels by 700 to about 9,000 this year, the extra complement sent specifically to help secure an August 20 election, Afghanistan's second presidential vote in its short history as a democracy.
One criticism among Afghanistan's Western allies during the first weeks of the Helmand offensives has been the paucity of Afghan troops, with only about 650 fighting alongside 4,000 U.S. Marines in Operation Strike of the Sword.
Foreign commanders say a primary goal of the offensives is to take ground from the Taliban and hold it, something overstretched British troops have so far been unable to do. They say they hope Afghan troops will be able to move in and hold that ground.
But on Friday, the head of the British army said the extra 700 troops should stay on after the elections and that Britain may need to deploy more soldiers for up to 18 months until the Afghan army is ready to take on greater responsibility.
There may well be a case for a short-term uplift. Our government will have to confront it, if asked, for about 12-18 months until the Afghan army can get the right strength out here, General Richard Dannatt told BBC radio in Afghanistan.
He said it would be wrong militarily to reduce troop levels back to 8,300 after the elections, which President Hamid Karzai is widely expected to win.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose Labour government trails in opinion polls and faces a general election within a year, has also urged Afghanistan to do more make its troops available on the ground if the southern offensives are to work.
British soldiers have borne the brunt of the Taliban resistance to the Helmand offensives, with eight killed in one day last week, their worst battlefield toll since the Falklands War in the 1980s.
Britain's death toll in Afghanistan has reached at least 185, more than the 179 killed in Iraq since 2003.
U.S. military deaths are also fast approaching their highest levels of the war, with at least 23 killed in combat so far this month. September 2008 was the worst month for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, with 26 killed in action.
U.S. troop levels have already risen by thousands. Under Obama's new strategy, they will more than double from 32,000 at the end of 2008 to a projected 68,000 by the end of 2009.
In Kandahar, senior police officer Saifullah Hakim said the roadside bomb that killed nine people had been planted on a road near the Pakistan border often used by convoys of Afghan and foreign troops.
Five children and two women were among the dead. The family had been traveling in a van to a shrine, Hakim said.
In neighboring Paktika province, Afghan and foreign forces killed 11 Taliban insurgents during an overnight operation that included air strikes, Afghan and NATO officials said.
(Additional reporting by Ismail Sameem in KANDAHAR, Hamid Shalizi in KABUL and Matt Falloon in LONDON; Editing by David Fox)