US troop deaths in Afghanistan at 5-year low


KABUL, Afghanistan — On the eve of the final “fighting season” before the major pullout of American troops from Afghanistan begins, U.S. deaths here have fallen to their lowest levels in five years.

The decline is even steeper for international forces: The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force suffered its fewest number of troops killed in December, January and February in seven years.

U.S. deaths in those months this winter totaled 17, down from 57 the previous winter.

As of Friday, a Marine who died in Helmand province on Feb. 22 was the only U.S. service member to be killed in 43 days, the longest such stretch since the winter of 2006-07.

The main reason for the drop in deaths among the coalition troops, military leaders say, is Afghan security forces have reached nearly full strength and are taking the lead in fighting insurgents. Also, measures taken to stop so-called insider attacks by Afghan soldiers and police officers on their foreign allies have been effective.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan currently number about 66,000. Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in February that more than 60,000 would remain through the fighting season. By November, though, the number will drop to about 50,000 and nearly half will be gone in a year. The U.S. combat mission is expected end by the end of 2014.

Afghan security forces are expected to take the lead in combat everywhere in the country by this spring, President Barack Obama said in January.

Nearly 2,200 U.S. troops have been killed and more than 17,000 wounded since fighting began. More than 1,000 troops from other nations in the coalition have been killed.