KABUL, Afghanistan — Over the past 27 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 United States and its allies are even winning.
"The U.S. political climate is such that the administration has to show some sort of good news to justify (the troop exit), and that is dictating what is being shown in terms of progress, even if there isn't any," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a political analyst in Kabul and former independent member of the Afghan parliament.
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.
"It's a function of numbers on the Afghans' part and a growing capability and capacity that really has allowed them to shift to the forefront of operations," said Marine Maj. Gen. Joseph Osterman, deputy chief of staff for joint operations at the U.S.-led international coalition in Kabul, the capital.
Insurgent attacks nationwide declined by more than a quarter in 2012, according to the Afghanistan NGO Safety Office, which advises humanitarian agencies on security trends. But U.S. commanders acknowledge that insurgents may be curtailing attacks in response to the drawdown of foreign troops.