KABUL, Afghanistan — The shift to Afghan security forces leading in combat and the ongoing reduction of U.S. troops here drove American combat deaths to their lowest number in five years for the first half of 2013.
“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 Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan, according to iCasualties.org., a website that tracks military deaths. The last year when the number of dead was for the comparable period was 2008. Then, 66 Americans died from January through June, and 155 were killed in the full year. The worst year for U.S. troops was 2010, when 499 Americans died. Fatalities have totaled more than 2,200 since the war began in 2001.
The nearly 12-year-old war has had time to develop patterns, and the number of deaths in the second half of any given year have often been higher. This year, , though, insurgents will have fewer targets: U.S. troops are expected to accelerate their withdrawal 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 by the end of 2014. Military advisers are expected to stay, but their number has not yet been determined.
Some of the withdrawal 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 advisory teams this summer. They’ve ceased patrolling almost entirely, and just one Marine has been killed in combat in Helmand all year.
While the U.S. war here is drawing to a close, the Afghans’ is not. Their military, police and civilian casualties are all up sharply.
Statistics for Afghan forces can be hard to come by, but 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 deaths, 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, compared with the 3,344 troops 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 leading 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 United Nations mission here. Nearly 3,100 were killed or wounded during the first five months of the year. That’s up 24 percent from the comparable period in 2012, said Jan Kubis, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan last month.
The jump in casualties among children was 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 sharply affect any comparison to previous years. In 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.
McClatchy special correspondent Rezwan Natiq contributed to this report.