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Originally published Sunday, March 3, 2013 at 12:05 AM

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U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan at 5-year low

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.

McClatchy Newspapers

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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 (ISAF) 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, according to records kept by iCasualties.org, which tracks deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The main reason for the drop in deaths among the coalition troops, military leaders say, is that Afghan security forces have reached nearly full strength and increasingly 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 apparently have been effective.

Such insider attacks reached a deadly crescendo last summer, and there were 47 attacks last year, which caused 62 deaths, according to the ISAF. But there have been just two such deaths in nearly four months: a British soldier who was killed in early January and an American civilian contractor whom an Afghan policewoman shot in December.

“There has certainly been an improvement in the past six months and we feel like those countermeasures have been effective, though it’s of course too early to make a final judgment,” said German Brig. Gen. Gunter Katz, the spokesman for the international forces in Afghanistan.

The reduction in the number of international forces here also probably had an effect, Katz said.

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 to finish up by the end of 2014.

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

Nearly 2,100 U.S. troops have been killed and more than 18,000 wounded since fighting began here. More than 1,000 troops from other nations in the coalition have been killed.

The peak of 499 American deaths came in 2010, along with the peak in U.S. troops here, after Obama order a “surge” of about 30,000 troops that brought the total to about 100,000.

2 Afghan boys killed accidentally

KABUL, Afghanistan — International forces accidentally killed two Afghan boys during an operation in southern Afghanistan, the U.S.-led coalition said Saturday.

Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, offered his “personal apology and condolences to the family of the boys who were killed” and said the coalition takes full responsibility for the deaths.

A statement issued by the coalition says the boys were killed Thursday when coalition forces fired at what they thought were insurgent forces in the Shahid-e Hasas district of Uruzgan province. It says a joint Afghan-NATO investigation team visited the location Saturday and met with local leaders.

The killing of civilians by foreign forces has been a major source of tension with the Afghan government throughout the nearly 12-year-old war.

According to a recent report by the United Nations, 2,754 Afghan civilians were killed last year, down 12 percent from 3,131 in 2011. But the number killed in the second half of last year rose.

The Associated Press

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