U.S. casualties hit 5-year low in Afghanistan as troops’ role turns to advising

McClatchy Foreign StaffJune 30, 2013 

— The shift to Afghan security forces leading in combat and the ongoing reduction of U.S. troops here have driven American casualties during the first half of 2013 to the lowest level in five years.

"Afghan National Security Forces are primarily the units in contact with enemy forces, rather than ISAF personnel," Lt. Tamarac Dyer, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) wrote in an emailed response to questions about casualties.

In the first six months of the year, 72 American troops were killed in Afghanistan, according to icasualties.org, a web site that tracks casualties. The last year when casualties were that low for the same period was 2008. Then, 66 Americans died in between January and June, and 155 were killed in the full year. The worst year for U.S. casualties was 2010, when 499 Americans died. All told, more than 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began in 2001.

The nearly 12-year-old war has had time to develop patterns, and casualties in the second half of any given year have often been higher. This time, though, the insurgents will have fewer targets: U.S. troops are expected to accelerate their drawdown after the summer, and the current force of about 68,000 troops is scheduled to be cut in half by the end of December.

With Afghans in the lead, U.S. forces’ exposure to danger also has been sharply reduced. Increasingly, U.S. troops, and their NATO allies, are working on large, heavily-secured bases, training and mentoring Afghan security forces, rather than patrolling the countryside.

The U.S.-led international coalition has been trimming its forces in advance of the full pullout of combat troops at the end of 2014. An advising force is expected to be left behind, but the size of that force has not yet been determined. U.S. military sources have suggested it might be as many as 15,000, including about 9,000 Americans..

Parts of the drawdown may go a bit more quickly than planned. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James F. Amos said last week that the Afghan units in Helmand Province – historically the deadliest place for U.S. and international troops – had improved so quickly that the Marines might bring home some of their military adviser teams this summer. They’ve ceased patrolling almost entirely, and just one Marine has been killed in combat in Helmand all year.

While Americans’ war here is drawing to a close, the Afghans’ is not. Their military, police and civilian casualties are all up sharply.

Statistics for casualties among Afghan forces can be hard to come by, but for two months from March 22 to May 22, at least 523 members of the national army, national police and border police were killed, according to the defense and interior ministries. Those numbers don’t include Afghan Local Police casualties, which also are substantial.

Last year, about 3,400 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed, up from about 1,950 in 2011, according to the Brookings Institution.

That’s more the 3,344 troops that the NATO-led coalition has lost during the course of the entire war.

How to cut those casualties has become a priority for NATO commanders, who’ve worked hard in recent years to help the Afghans build their security forces to the target strength of 352,000. But high numbers of desertions and casualties means that about 50,000 new soldiers and police officers have to be recruited and trained every year.

Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, the deputy commander for ISAF, said last month that that attrition rate can’t continue indefinitely without affecting the ability of the Afghan forces to fight, and U.S. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the ISAF commander, said the U.S. is “working very closely with the Afghan leadership to identify the specific causes of those casualties."

"We’re looking at that as though they were our own casualties," Dunford said.

At news conference June 18, hours after Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced that Afghan forces were formally in the lead for security across the country, said that many Afghan casualties are caused by improvised bombs. ISAF, he said, has developed a detailed plan for equipping and training the Afghans to find and eliminate the bombs.

"I don’t think at this point that it reflects on their ability to secure the country. Their performance speaks for itself in terms of results," he said, speaking of the casualty rate. "But certainly reducing casualties over time is one of the most important and significant leadership challenges that the Afghan leadership has."

Civilian casualties also are increasing, according to the U.N. mission here. Nearly 3,100 were killed or wounded during the first five months of the year. That’s up 24 percent from the same period in 2012, said Jan Kubis, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) last month.

The jump was even greater for child casualties, which were up 30 percent.

Kubis said that the insurgents caused 74 percent of such casualties. Afghan and NATO-led forces were responsible for 9 percent.

The U.S. casualty numbers, meanwhile, are now so low that a single incident can have a sharp impact on any comparison to earlier years. Indeed, for the first few months of the year, there were so few combat casualties that aircraft accidents were the primary killer.

Now, improvised bombs, which have been the single greatest cause of deaths for US troops here, have again assumed that place. They have caused just under half the total for deaths among members of the NATO-led coalition, according to icasualties.

McCatchy special correspondent Rezwan Natiq contributed to this story.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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