U.S. military equipment in Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Michael Behlin AP)
LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan (USA TODAY) - The number of U.S. deaths in Afghanistan is on track to decline sharply this year, reflecting the drawdown in U.S. forces and an expanded Afghan army that is playing a larger role in fighting the Taliban.
This year, 301 Americans have died in Afghanistan, down from a peak of 500 American deaths in 2010, according to a USA TODAY database. It is the second consecutive yearly decline.
"A year ago we were taking larger amounts of casualties than they were," said Marine Maj. Gen. Charles "Mark" Gurganus, referring to Afghan security forces in the former Taliban stronghold of Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. "It is absolutely 180 (degrees) out now," he said.
"They're being targeted a lot more intensely," said Gurganus, commander of Regional Command Southwest.
The Afghan Defense Ministry estimates that the Afghan military and police have are seeing more than 300 deaths per month. About 80% of the operations are now led and planned by Afghan forces, up from 50% in the summer, according to the coalition command.
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The Afghan security force has grown to about 350,000. The number of U.S. forces has declined to about 68,000 from a peak of nearly 100,000.
"They are really taking the fight now and we are stepping back," said German Air Force Brig. Gen. Günter Katz, the top coalition spokesman.
The United States and its allies are still in the combat zones, providing critical support functions to the Afghan military even as coalition forces are playing less of a role in direct combat.
The U.S. military supplies air support for medical evacuation, equipment to counter roadside bombs and intelligence and surveillance capabilities. Analysts say the Afghans will need such support to continue.
"Without a U.S. military presence, the Afghan government would be in deep trouble," says Seth Jones, an analyst at RAND Corp., a non-profit research group. "A U.S. presence is probably necessary to survive."
President Obama has said that U.S. forces are to remain in Afghanistan through 2014 only. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a continued U.S. mission in Afghanistan would likely include counterterrorism forces, advisers and support functions.
Negotiations to leave behind a residual force after 2014 began last month. Similar negotiations in Iraq over a residual force broke down over the issue of legal protections for U.S. military personnel.
Analysts say they expect that U.S. and Afghan negotiators will reach an agreement because Afghanistan understands the importance of a U.S. presence.
"The Afghans are a lot more pragmatic," according to Said Jawad, a former Afghanistan ambassador to the United States. "They know both security and economic stability depends on an international presence."