Foreign troops fighting in Afghanistan continue to pay a high toll, with more than 560 killed in 2011, the second highest number in the 10-year war against the Taliban-led insurgency.
Commanders from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) say violence is declining following the U.S. military surge which saw an extra 33,000 troops on the ground.
But the U.N. says violence is up, while recent mass casualty strikes by the Taliban on civilians and coalition troops have fuelled analyst predictions that more bloodshed is likely as NATO hands control for security to Afghan forces.
The death toll of coalition service personnel in 2011 was 566 and includes at least 417 from the US and 45 from Britain, according to an AFP tally based on figures from independent website icasualties.org.
The number is down from a wartime high of 711 in 2010 after the start of the surge but up from 521 in 2009.
The toll in 2011 was added to on the final day of the year when ISAF announced a service member had died after a non-battle related incident in the south.
The fatality count has been worsened by several devastating attacks, including the car bombing of an ISAF convoy in Kabul in October which killed 17, and the shooting down of a helicopter in Wardak, south of the capital, in August in which 30 U.S. troops perished.
But it is Afghan civilians who have paid the highest price.
The deadliest attack saw at least 80 people killed in a shrine bombing in Kabul on the Shiite holy day of Ashura in early December.
The surge troops ̶ ordered in by U.S. President Barack Obama two years ago to turn the tide in the war ̶ have now begun to pull out, with 10,000 already gone and the rest leaving by next autumn.
Other foreign forces are also scaling down their missions ahead of a 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of all NATO combat forces. And one Western military official said some units have already been told not to carry out offensive operations.
Since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power in 2001, a total of 2,847 foreign troops have died in the conflict.
“We’ve seen a considerable reduction in enemy attacks (this year). That's a result of successes on the battle field and a reduction of their capability to attack us,” said ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson.
While fewer ISAF troops on the ground in the coming years may mean fewer coalition deaths, the civilian toll will not necessarily fall.
The U.N. said the number of civilians killed in violence in Afghanistan rose by 15 percent in the first six months of this year to 1,462. A full-year report is due out in mid-January.
Insurgents are blamed for 80 percent of the deaths, which are mostly caused by homemade bombs or IEDs.
NATO, which says enemy attacks are down eight percent, only includes “executed attacks” and not IED finds or instances where the Taliban intimidate local people.
Haroun Mir, an analyst at Afghanistan’s Center for Research and Policy Studies, said that while the Taliban were no longer engaging ISAF troops head-on, factions within the insurgency were intent on targeting civilians.
“The Taliban are deliberately targeting civilians to spread fear among the people. They want to show that despite the surge they are still active, that they have the capacity to disrupt life, especially in the cities,” he said.
The international community is looking for a political solution to the war and moves have been made to establish a Taliban office, possibly in Qatar, to enable peace talks.
But Mir said although some members of the Taliban would be willing to negotiate, others, such as those based over the border in Pakistan, are likely to become increasingly isolated and unleash more violence.
“We expect more terrorist attacks and more political assassinations during the phase of transition. These radical groups will do everything possible, especially after 2014, to weaken the government,” he said.
As security is handed over the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which now number more than 300,000, can also expect to take on more casualties.
Since March 21, the beginning of the Afghan year, 1,400 police, 520 soldiers and 4,275 insurgents have been killed in the conflict, according to Afghan government figures.
However, there is some optimism that the reduction in the foreign presence may in itself lead to a fall in violence.
“The hope is that as foreign troops hand security to Afghan forces fewer local people will become radicalized,” said Fabrizio Foschini of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“And the insurgents won’t kill as many civilians collaterally by using highly destructive tactics to target foreigners,” he said.