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CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan — 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, a USA Today database shows. It is the second consecutive yearly drop.
"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 region in southern Afghanistan. "It is absolutely 180 (degrees) out now," said Gurganus, head of Regional Command Southwest.
The Afghan Defense Ministry estimates that the Afghan military and police have more than 300 deaths per month. About 80 percent of the operations are led and planned by Afghan forces, the coalition command says.
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 U.S. and its allies are still in combat zones, providing critical support functions even as coalition forces are playing less of a role in direct combat. The U.S. supplies air support for medical evacuation, equipment to counter roadside bombs and intelligence and surveillance capabilities.
President Obama has said that most U.S. combat forces are to stay through 2014 only. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said a U.S. mission after that would likely include counterterrorism forces, advisers and support functions.
"Without a U.S. military presence, the Afghan government would be in deep trouble," said Seth Jones of RAND Corp., a non-profit research group.