Image: U.S. helicopter in Afghanistan
Rahmat Gul  /  AP
U.S. helicopters arrive in Badghis province, Afghanistan, on Sunday.
updated 12/1/2008 6:19:28 PM ET 2008-12-01T23:19:28

One American serviceman died in Afghanistan in November, a dramatic drop from earlier months that the U.S. military attributed to their campaign against insurgent leaders, operations by Afghan and Pakistani forces and the onset of winter.

Twice this year, monthly U.S. death tolls in Afghanistan surpassed the monthly toll in Iraq, highlighting the differing trends in the two war zones: Security in Iraq has improved while it has deteriorated in Afghanistan.

The Taliban's reach is expanding — and even the capital, Kabul, is more dangerous than before.

U.S. troops suffered an average of 21 deaths in Afghanistan each month this year from May to October — by far the deadliest six-month period in Afghanistan for American forces since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The Afghan Defense Ministry does not release fatality figures.

Militants this year have unleashed increasingly powerful roadside bombs and sophisticated, multidirectional ambushes. The deadlier attacks, combined with a record number of U.S. troops patrolling Afghanistan's vast provinces, has this year led to more American military deaths than ever before in Afghanistan — 148.

The sole U.S. military death recorded last month came when a suicide bomber rammed his car into a military convoy Nov. 13 as it was passing through a crowded market in eastern Afghanistan. The blast killed Sgt. Jonnie L. Stiles, 38, who was serving with the Louisiana Army National Guard.

Start of trend?
Lt. Col. Rumi Nielson-Green, the spokeswoman at the U.S. base at Bagram, cautioned that one month of data does not make a trend "but may be an indicator."

But she noted that operations conducted by U.S. forces last summer against insurgent areas and bomb-making networks helped lower November's violence. Those efforts likely contributed to a 40 percent drop in improvised explosive device attacks in October, compared with September, and may have pushed down troop death last month as well.

In addition, U.S. forces also pressed ahead in November with what commanders call the Winter Campaign.

"This campaign is designed to create the conditions of lowering enemy capabilities, diminishing their support areas both by hard-power and soft, and continue strengthening border operations to complement the Pakistani efforts in the FATA," she said, referring to Pakistan's northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

She said Pakistani military operations in Bajur have also helped security in Afghanistan.

Weather a factor
Insurgents in Afghanistan, particularly in mountainous areas, typically scale back their operations during the winter months, and that may have contributed to the declining trend, U.S. military spokesman Col. Jerry O'Hara said.

"That's some of it," he said. "But really we attribute it more toward our improvement in our tactics and techniques and procedures, along with the increased capability of the Afghan security forces."

O'Hara said the number of attacks in the Kabul region was 50 percent lower in January to October this year than during the same 10-month period in 2007. "And again, we attribute that to not only the Afghan security forces, but you have to give credit to the Afghan people for their personal involvement in the form of tips and their reports to Afghan security forces," he said.

Iraq violence falling
Eleven U.S. troops died in Afghanistan in November 2007, meaning the year-on-year drop is also significant.

The U.S. still has about 150,000 troops in Iraq, but violence there has fallen off dramatically in recent months. Over the past six months it has become more dangerous to serve in Afghanistan, where the death rate among U.S. troops has been higher than in Iraq.

A near-record 32,000 American forces are deployed in Afghanistan.

Despite the vastly greater number of Americans deployed in Iraq, in two months this year more U.S. forces died in Afghanistan than Iraq. In July, 20 U.S. forces died in Afghanistan; 16 died in Iraq. In September, 16 died in Afghanistan; 14 died in Iraq.

Sixteen U.S. troops died in Iraq last month.

O'Hara said the military mourns every death and that the number of casualties is not a measure of effectiveness for the military.

"Our measures of effectiveness are increased security, increases in development, increases in people's attitudes toward their own well being," said O'Hara. "And certainly we're always adjusting our tactics based on what we see on the battlefield and what we are able to learn through intelligence about the insurgents."

Insurgency more 'virulent'
The commander of NATO, Gen. John Craddock, said last week that the Taliban insurgency was growing more "virulent," saying violence jumped by 40 percent this year. Last year 111 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, meaning deaths this year will likely have increased between 30 percent and 40 percent by the end of the year.

More than 5,900 people — mostly militants — have died in insurgency related violence in Afghanistan this year, according to an Associated Press count of figures from Afghan and Western officials.

On Monday, a suicide bomber apparently trying to target Afghan police blew himself up in a crowded market in southern Afghanistan, killing eight civilians and two policemen, said Helmand provincial police chief Asadullah Sherzad.

In Kabul on Sunday, a suicide bomber attacked a German Embassy vehicle, killing two Afghan civilians.

Civilian casualties
Taliban and other militant suicide bombers frequently target Afghan and international military forces in their suicide attacks, but many more Afghan civilians typically die in the attacks than do government officials or military personnel.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Elsewhere on Monday, gunmen on a motorbike killed a district chief in central Afghanistan, a provincial spokesman said.

It was not clear who was responsible, but Taliban militants regularly assassinate government officials in their attempt to weaken the grip of President Hamid Karzai's administration in the provinces.

More on Taliban | NATO

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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