As combat role eases, aircraft crashes are biggest killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan

 

McClatchy Newspapers

With the combat role of U.S. troops in Afghanistan tapering off, aircraft accidents emerged as the biggest killer of U.S. troops here during the first four months of the year. Since Jan. 1, 13 service members have been killed in five crashes.

U.S. troop deaths remain at their lowest levels here in recent years. The number so far this year, 33 through Tuesday, is the lowest at this point since 2008.

After air accidents, the next biggest cause of death was improvised bombs, which claimed at least eight service members. Four died from causes unrelated to combat.

In all, 42 members of the international coalition have been killed in Afghanistan this year, including three of unknown nationalities, whose deaths in an explosion in southern Afghanistan were announced Tuesday night.

Commanders with the U.S.-led coalition say the obvious reason that casualties remain low is that Afghan security forces are doing the fighting now in most parts of the country, and they’re expected to take the lead completely in the next two months

Deaths and injuries among Afghan security forces, consequently, are reaching new highs. A Ministry of Defense spokesman would release only the number of Afghan National Army deaths from Feb. 21 through the end of March, which was 107, up from 97 for the same period the previous year. U.S. military officers say large numbers of Afghan police officers also are being killed.

Civilian casualties are up sharply, too, as are estimates of the number of insurgent attacks, which soared 47 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the same period in 2012, according to a recent report by the Afghan NGO Safety Office, which monitors violence in Afghanistan for nongovernment aid agencies.

Civilian casualties climbed almost 30 percent, with 475 people killed and 872 injured, compared with the first quarter of 2012, according to the United Nations’ senior envoy in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis. Insurgents caused most of the civilian deaths.

“Afghans in the lead” means U.S. forces aren’t exposed to risk as often as they were when Americans led much of the offensive operations in Afghanistan. Hundreds of small and medium-sized outposts have been torn down or handed to Afghan forces, and many of the 66,000 remaining U.S. troops work mainly on heavily secured bases, where they focus on advising and training with large units of the Afghan security forces rather than working with front-line units on patrols and assault operations.

Casualties from so-called green-on-blue attacks – in which Afghan forces turn on their coalition allies – also remain low so far this year. Such attacks caused 62 deaths last year, according to the coalition. This year, though, there have been just two incidents so far, resulting in the deaths of one British and two U.S. service members.

The drop in attacks is at least partly due to several measures the coalition put into place last fall to reduce their likelihood, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. James L. Terry, the outgoing leader of the international joint command, said Tuesday in his last news conference here.

"I think we’ve come a long way in the last year in countering that threat," he said, pausing briefly to knock on the wood of his lectern. "We’re not over it, and I’m sure there will be more attempts as we look down the road."

He noted that the Taliban have threatened recently to increase their infiltration of Afghan forces to give them a chance to stage more attacks, but he said the leaders of the Afghan security forces were working diligently to reduce the chances of more.

The measures the coalition put in place include stepping up security between adjacent Afghan and coalition bases, and assigning armed "guardian angels" to stand watch when there’s interaction with Afghan security forces.

Meanwhile, such attacks have grown more common within the Afghan forces, perpetrated by those who are sympathetic to the insurgency.

There’s no particular pattern to the types of aircraft in the five crashes. They were a Black Hawk utility helicopter, an Apache attack helicopter, a small two-seat Kiowa reconnaissance helicopter, an F-16 jet fighter and a twin-engine MC-12 surveillance turboprop plane.

In each case the Taliban claimed credit, but NATO officials said all the crashes apparently were accidents. Taliban statements often prove false or wildly inflated.

On Monday, a Boeing 747 cargo plane under contract to the Department of Defense crashed on takeoff at Bagram, the largest U.S. base in Afghanistan, claiming the lives of seven civilian crew members. The massive jet had just refueled, and after it appeared to stall on takeoff, it fell inside the base’s security perimeter and burned fiercely. NATO officials said they weren’t aware of any insurgent activity at the time of the crash.

The Taliban claimed that one, too.

Email: jayprice@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @jayinkabul

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