U.S. military deaths down in Afghanistan

Sides spar on why numbers dropped

KABUL, Afghanistan – It was by no means a common occurrence. But in the year that just drew to a close, a day would often pass, sometimes several, without an American service member dying in Afghanistan.

For the first time in years, U.S. military deaths here declined in 2011. American and Taliban commanders have very different explanations, and very different views of what that means for Afghanistan in the new year and beyond.

As they prepare to accelerate their withdrawal from Afghanistan, U.S. officials speak of having turned a corner in 2011. From the Taliban perspective, the Americans took fewer fatalities only because they lost the taste for aggressive combat.

Until last year, U.S. fatalities in the decadelong conflict had usually climbed – sometimes sharply – from year to year, peaking in 2010 at 499. That number dropped last year to 417, according to the independent website – a significant drop, but still averaging more than one per day.

Overall deaths in the NATO force fell even more, from 711 in 2010 to 565 last year.

U.S. officials say successful tactics and the effect of sheer numbers broke the momentum of the Taliban and other armed militant factions in the year just passed, when American troop strength topped out at more than 100,000. Since summer, 10,000 U.S. troops have left, and an additional 23,000 are scheduled to depart in 2012.

The flexing of that military muscle led to some of the most triumphal rhetoric in years about the Afghan war effort. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, visiting the country in mid-December, told American troops that they were “winning this very tough conflict.”

The commander of Western forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Gen. John Allen, has been more circumspect.

The standard language he used during a series of holiday visits that took him to American outposts scattered across the country was echoed in his year-end message to U.S. forces: “Every one of you here is contributing to the liberation of a country and giving Afghanistan hope.”

The upbeat assessment, however, contains a paradox: If an increase in troop strength helped produce a turnaround, will the pullback set the stage for a reversal?

The insurgents insist that is already happening. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid attributed the decrease last year in Western military fatalities to a decline in major offensives.

“They have not conducted any huge operations anywhere,” he said. “This year NATO forces have maintained defensive positions. They are not coming out of their bases. They have reduced their mobility everywhere.”

Western commanders say that is untrue, pointing to aggressive campaigns in recent months in eastern Afghanistan, near Pakistan’s tribal areas. Senior U.S. officials expect the military focus in the coming year to be on the east, a stronghold for one of the most dangerous insurgent groups, the Haqqani network.

Even though Allen has reportedly been lobbying the White House to slow down the American pullback, he and other Western commanders assert that diminishing numbers of North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops will not pose difficulties.

Afghan forces are stepping up their role, taking the lead in more and more parts of the country. Western and Afghan officials say they are on track to meet target numbers that will bring Afghan troop strength to 195,000 by October.

As the new year begins, the Afghan government and the Obama administration are looking for ways to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban.

In late December, Afghan President Hamid Karzai agreed to the opening of a Taliban liaison office in Qatar, though some members of his administration fear U.S. officials will keep them in the dark about their contacts with the insurgents.

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