KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the last 26 days, something unusual has happened in Afghanistan: Not one U.S. service member has been killed. The lion’s share of the fighting — and dying — is now being done by Afghans.
The last American troop death, from injuries suffered in a December roadside bombing, occurred Jan. 20, marking the longest stretch without a fatality since 2008 and offering a glimmer of evidence that the United States’ 11-year war is in its twilight. Deaths among U.S. troops in Afghanistan last year reached a four-year low as commanders hailed a tipping point in a conflict that has claimed more than 2,100 American lives.
With President Barack Obama planning to bring home half the remaining 66,000 troops by next February and the rest by the end of 2014, the shrinking American death toll has bolstered his administration’s contention that the Taliban-led insurgency is degraded and that Afghan forces are ready to take charge of their country’s security.
American forces continue to carry out ground operations and provide crucial air power, but U.S. and Afghan officials say Afghans now lead well over 80 percent of combat operations and control areas where more than three-quarters of the population resides. Experts cite other reasons for the reduced U.S. casualties, as well, including new measures to prevent insider attacks, the possibility that insurgents are curtailing attacks during the withdrawal and the usual reduction in fighting during the winter.
But it is also clear that the last American has not yet died in Afghanistan, and analysts caution that fewer fatalities doesn’t necessarily indicate that the U.S. and its allies are even winning.
Afghan soldiers and police now number nearly 350,000. Last year was the deadliest so far for the Afghan army, with 473 soldiers killed in the six months ending Jan. 19, according to Defense Ministry statistics. In the same period, 163 coalition soldiers were killed, including 127 Americans, according to icasualties.org, a website that tracks military deaths.
In their zeal to depart by 2014, some analysts say, U.S. officials are accepting the shortcomings of Afghan security forces. Many of the Afghan casualties are caused by accidents or poor equipment; attrition rates remain high; and almost no units can operate without U.S. or NATO support.
When Obama declared in his State of the Union message this week that “by the end of next year, our war in Afghanistan will be over,” some in Kabul noted bitterly that he only meant the U.S. war effort. Afghan forces, they said, would have to continue to fight.
The last 11 years “created a situation where the Afghan army and police were always sort of the auxiliary force,” Sultanzoy said. “Now they are the main force, and they have to adjust to this new role.”