Despite U.S. reports of progress on the battlefield, American troops were killed in the first half of this year at the same pace as in 2010 _ an indication that the war's toll on U.S. forces has not eased as the Obama administration moves to shift the burden to the Afghans.
While the overall international death toll dropped by 14 percent in the first half of the year, the number of Americans who died remained virtually unchanged, 197 this year compared with 195 in the first six months of last year, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
Americans have been involved in some of the fiercest fighting as the U.S. administration sent more than 30,000 extra troops in a bid to pacify areas in the Taliban's southern heartland and other dangerous areas. U.S. military officials have predicted more tough fighting through the summer as the Taliban try to regain territory they have lost.
President Barack Obama has begun to reverse the surge of American forces, ordering a reduction of 10,000 by the end of the year and another 23,000 by September 2012. But the U.S. military has not announced which troops are being sent home, or whether they will be withdrawn from any of the most violent areas in the south and east.
Rear Adm. Vic Beck, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Kabul, said he couldn't comment specifically on the U.S. death count, but noted that the casualties were unchanged despite the surge in forces. He attributed the overall decline in the international toll to coalition progress on the battlefield, including the discovery of a rising number of militant weapons caches. He also said Afghan security forces are increasingly taking the lead, although recent violence has raised concerns about their readiness to secure their own country.
Beck said insurgents were shifting their focus to attacking civilians, pointing to last week's attack against the Inter-Continental, a luxury hotel in Kabul, that left 20 people dead, including the nine assailants.
"The enemy is taking the fight more to innocent Afghan civilians because we're taking it to them pretty hard on the battlefield," he said.
According to the AP tally, 271 international troops, including the Americans, were killed in the first half of the year _ down 14 percent from the 316 killed in the first six months of last year.
With the American deaths virtually unchanged, the decline reflects a drop off in deaths of troops from other contributing nations. In the first half of the year, 74 of these troops _ from countries like Britain, France and Australia _ died compared with 121 in the first six months of last year.
In the most recent deaths, NATO said two coalition service members were killed in roadside bombings _ one Saturday in the west who was identified as an Italian, and another Friday in the south whose nationality was not available.
By contrast, a recent U.N. report found that May was the deadliest month for civilians since it began keeping track in 2007, and it said insurgents were to blame for 82 percent of the 368 deaths recorded. The U.N. does not usually release monthly civilian casualty figures but said it was compelled to do so in May because of the high number.
The Taliban have denied targeting civilians and insist coalition claims that insurgents have suffered heavy losses at the hands of foreign troops are false.
Monthly death tolls of foreign forces have varied so far this year, but they fell dramatically in June.
Overall, 65 international troops, including Americans, died last month. That's down 37 percent from the 103 who died in June 2010 _ the deadliest month on record for foreign forces. More than 25 died last month in Helmand province in the south where fierce fighting continues in some hot spots, the AP tally showed.
"In the areas that we believe were pretty secure, there has been very little violence," U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. John Toolan Jr., the commander in Helmand province, said at a recent Pentagon briefing. He said he's still concerned about northern districts like Gereshk and Sangin.
He said his forces are working with their Afghan partners to try to keep hold of security gains made in recent months.
"I'm pretty sure, pretty confident we'll be able to do that, but it won't be without a fight," Toolan said. "But it will not be as big a fight, in my estimation, as it has been in the past."
Underscoring the dangers, a roadside bomb ripped through a van carrying a family Saturday in southern Afghanistan, killing all 13 on board _ the deadliest incident in a string of attacks since Friday that killed 18 civilians, according to Afghan officials.
President Hamid Karzai condemned the attacks, saying in a statement that "bombings that kill innocent civilians are the work of people who don't want the nation to have a life without sadness."