U.S. casualties trending down in Afghanistan

As of mid-December, 407 Americans have been killed, nearly a hundred fewer than last year.

As 2011 comes to an end, a little-noticed statistic bears positive news for the U.S. military in Afghanistan: For the first time in recent memory, U.S. casualties -- while still significantly higher than in earlier years -- may be trending down.

U.S. battlefield deaths in Afghanistan had been increasing since 2006, with each consecutive year breaking a record. In 2007, 117 Americans were killed in Afghanistan, but the 155 killed in 2008 set a new bar. By 2009, as U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan began to climb, casualties had doubled to 314. There were 506 troops killed in Afghanistan last year, again setting a new record.

This year, by contrast, seems virtually certain to end with fewer U.S. casualties than in 2010. As of mid-December, 407 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan, nearly a hundred fewer than last year. The casualty levels remain significantly higher than in earlier years of the war, but the trend line of American deaths is -- for the first time in recent memory -- pointing down.

The decline in American casualties could lead to political repercussions here at home given the war's growing unpopularity. A CNN poll in late October found that support for the war had fallen to an all-time low of 34 percent, with 58 percent of voters saying the conflict was turning into a Vietnam-like quagmire. Strategists from both parties agree U.S. casualties are the aspect of the war voters care most about, so a sustained decline would provide a boost to the Obama administration as it heads into a difficult reelection cycle.

"The lower number of American dead is certainly helpful from a domestic political standpoint," said Seth Jones, a political analyst at the Rand Corp. who has frequently advised U.S. Special Operations forces in Afghanistan. "The fact that there are fewer American bodies coming home, draped in American flags, is a significant change."

The Pentagon is pointing to the falling numbers of U.S. deaths to bolster its contention that the U.S.-led military alliance in Afghanistan has gained the upper hand over the Taliban and is now winning the conflict. It's far from clear that momentum has conclusively shifted to the NATO coalition, but the optimism of senior U.S. policymakers is a striking departure from their usually cautious public statements about the war.

"I really think that for all the sacrifices that you're doing, the reality is that it is paying off, and that we're moving in the right direction," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week while visiting U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan. "We're winning this very tough conflict."

Pentagon officials offer four primary explanations for the decline. A long-troubled U.S. effort to train effective Afghan security forces is said to be finally showing modest signs of progress, paving the way for Afghan forces to take the lead in some combat operations and allow American troops to play a support role. A parallel effort to build localized militias in volatile regions like southern Afghanistan has grown to include tens of thousands of fighters, giving the U.S. another ally in the anti-Taliban fight.

Military commanders also argue that operations along the porous border with Pakistan are making it harder for militants from violent groups like the Haqqani network to cross into Afghanistan to carry out new attacks. The most important reason for the decline, claim senior U.S. officials, is that sustained U.S. offensives in southern and eastern Afghanistan have driven the Taliban out of their traditional strongholds and inflicted significant casualties on the armed group.

"It's increasingly evident that we are facing and defeating inexperienced and poorly trained and led insurgent fighters," Maj. Gen. Dan Allyn, the top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan, told reporters this month.

Several other outside analysts believe the U.S. alliance has, in fact, scored some important battlefield gains in recent months, especially in the south. But they cautioned it is too early to conclude that the tide has conclusively turned.

"It doesn't tell you who's winning," said analyst Seth Jones, pointing to the Taliban's ability to mount new attacks in once-peaceful parts of western and northern Afghanistan.

While U.S. casualties may be on the decline, Afghan deaths continue to climb, sapping domestic support there for the U.S.-led war effort. A United Nations report earlier this year found that Afghan civilian casualties had increased 15 percent during the first half of the year, to 1,462. Hundreds of Afghan security personnel died over the same period, though exact statistics are hard to come by.