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American troop casualties in Afghanistan steeply fall

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 7:14 p.m.
Reuters
An Afghan National Army soldier (front) patrols with an American solder near Command Outpost AJK, short for Azim-Jan-Kariz, a nearby village, in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Jan. 31. REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Deaths of American troops 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 the Taliban also have declined, although the war is far from finished.

Pentagon figures show that three American soldiers died in January — the lowest monthly total since December 2008. One of the soldiers died of injuries suffered in December.

The total of 30 American deaths during 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 troops who fought the nation's two post-9/11 wars — more than eight years in Iraq and 11-plus years in Afghanistan.

The last 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 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 will have left Afghanistan, although President Obama may keep a few thousand there to continue training Afghan forces and to press the hunt for terrorists.

Obama is expected to make a decision, in consultation with allies, soon.

The United States now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Afghans are taking heavier casualties as their allies prepare to leave.

More than 1,200 Afghan soldiers died last year, compared with more than 550 in 2011, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. The Pentagon says the United States lost 313 troops last year, down from 414 in 2011.

Deaths from Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on American troops — known as insider attacks — have declined in recent months — reflecting the move away from partnering with Afghans in combat operations, as well as firmer security measures intended to prevent such attacks.

The pace of combat tends to slacken during the harsh winter months, when terrorists slip away to rest and rearm, but the recent decline in U.S. casualties is exceptional.

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