WASHINGTON — U.S. troop deaths in Afghanistan have plunged to the lowest level in four years, reflecting a pullback from direct combat into the less deadly role of advising and assisting Afghan forces as they do more of the fighting.
Attacks by Taliban insurgents also have declined, although the war is far from finished.
Pentagon figures show that the U.S. lost three soldiers in January, including one who died of injuries suffered in December. That was the lowest monthly total since December 2008.
The total of 30 U.S. deaths over the past three months is the lowest for any three-month stretch of the war since late 2008 and early 2009.
The improvement is more than a statistical note. It marks the approaching end of battlefield sacrifice by U.S. troops who fought the nation's two post-Sept. 11 wars – more than eight years in Iraq and 11-plus years in Afghanistan.
The last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, with a cumulative death toll of nearly 4,500 and more than 30,000 wounded. In Afghanistan, a little more than 2,000 have died and 18,000 more have been wounded.
Harder to calculate is the psychological toll on troops and their families, underscored by a rising number of military suicides, which last year reached a post-2001 high.
"The reality is that while combat operations may wind down, the impact of these wars, and the high state of readiness the military must maintain, means that the need for ... services and bereavement support will continue for military families," said Ami Neiberger-Miller, spokeswoman for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a private support group.
By the end of next year, all American combat troops are to have left Afghanistan, although President Barack Obama may keep a few thousand there to continue training Afghan forces and to press the hunt for terrorists. He is expected to make a decision, in consultation with allies, by the end of this month.
The U.S. now has 66,000 troops in Afghanistan.
Afghans already are taking heavier casualties as their allies prepare to leave. More than 1,200 Afghan soldiers died in 2012 compared with more than 550 the year before, according to data compiled by the Washington-based Brookings Institution. The Pentagon says the U.S. lost 313 troops last year, down from 414 the year before.
The drop in U.S. deaths in Afghanistan has not been unexpected, given the gradual shift away from direct combat. But it has drawn relatively little attention as the war effort fades as a major worry for most Americans.
Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the U.S.-led international military coalition in Kabul, the Afghan capital, said the drop in U.S. deaths reflects in part the declining number of troops in combat as well as progress in building Afghan forces.
"This is proof that the campaign is progressing from one primarily focused on coalition-led combat operations to one focused on the train, advise and assist mission," Graybeal said.
U.S. deaths from Afghan soldiers turning their weapons on them – known as insider attacks – also have declined in recent months. That, too, reflects a U.S. move away from partnering with Afghans in combat operations, as well as firmer security measures intended to prevent such attacks.
The pace of combat tends to slacken during the harsh winter months, when insurgents slip away to rest and rearm, but the recent drop-off in U.S. casualties has been exceptional.
January's three deaths compare with 26 a year ago January, 25 in January 2011 and 30 in January 2010. The number has fallen every month since July, when 42 Americans were killed.
The trend may hold as the U.S. begins to bring more troops home, perhaps starting this spring, and as the remaining forces move fully into a back-seat role.
Obama announced during Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to the White House on Jan. 11 that Afghans will be in the lead across the country by spring, which is sooner than planned.
Obama asserted that the U.S. had achieved its core objective in Afghanistan, "ensuring that al-Qaida can never again use Afghanistan to launch attacks against America." He said it is time to leave the war to the Afghans.
Fewer casualties do not necessarily equate to military success, but Gen. John Allen, who will relinquish command of U.S. and allied forces on Feb. 10, has told reporters in recent days that he believes Afghan forces are getting stronger and will be ready to hold off the insurgency largely on their own by the end of 2014.
U.S. deaths in Afghanistan peaked in the summer of 2010, totaling 180 from June through August amid a stepped-up U.S. offensive, with an influx of 30,000 more forces, to reverse the Taliban's momentum in southern Afghanistan.
Robert Burns can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP