WASHINGTON – U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan have plunged to the lowest level in four years, reflecting a pullback from direct combat into the less deadly role of advising and assisting Afghan forces as they do more of the fighting.
Attacks by Taliban insurgents also have declined, although the war is far from finished.
Pentagon figures show that the U.S. lost three soldiers in January, including one who died of injuries suffered in December. That was the lowest monthly total since December 2008.
The total of 30 U.S. deaths over the past three months is the lowest for any three-month stretch of the war since late 2008 and early 2009.
The improvement is more than a statistical note. It marks the approaching end of battlefield sacrifice by U.S. troops who fought the nation’s two post-Sept. 11 wars – more than eight years in Iraq and 11-plus years in Afghanistan.
The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, with a cumulative death toll of nearly 4,500 and more than 30,000 wounded. In Afghanistan, a little more than 2,000 have died and 18,000 more have been wounded.
Harder to calculate is the psychological toll on troops and their families, underscored by a rising number of military suicides, which last year reached a post-2001 high.
“The reality is that while combat operations may wind down, the impact of these wars, and the high state of readiness the military must maintain, means that the need for … services and bereavement support will continue for military families,” said Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a private support group.
By the end of next year, all American combat troops are to have left Afghanistan, although President Barack Obama may keep a few thousand there to continue training Afghan forces and to press the hunt for terrorists. He is expected to make a decision, in consultation with allies, by the end of this month.
The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Afghans already are taking heavier casualties as their allies prepare to leave. More than 1,200 Afghan soldiers died in 2012 compared with more than 550 the year before, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. The Pentagon says the U.S. lost 313 troops last year, down from 414 the year before.