Better Security Measures in Iraq Helped Curb Combat Deaths

Despite lower number, officials say it is difficult to gauge a trend.

Dec. 4, 2008— -- U.S. combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan last month dropped to the lowest combined level since the United States began fighting the two wars more than five years ago.

Eleven American servicemembers died in combat in the conflicts in November. Seven others died in non-hostile incidents. The highest monthly total for combat deaths in both wars was 129 in November 2004.

Security in Iraq has improved dramatically over the past year, despite a number of high-profile bombing against civilian targets in recent weeks.

"If you look at the numbers of (Iraq) attacks overall, they are much, much lower than they have ever been since ... 2003," Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin, the No. 2 ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters Wednesday in Baghdad.

Afghanistan is a more complicated picture. There was only one U.S. combat death in November, the lowest level since February. However, 11 other coalition troops died there last month.

Fighting in Afghanistan tapers off in the winter when snow makes much of the terrain impassable.

No firm conclusions can be drawn from November's statistics, said Maj. John Redfield, a U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan.

"One month does not constitute a trend," he said in an e-mail, and casualties alone are not the best measure of progress.

"The better way to determine that is through things like number of Afghan national security forces trained, overall security levels, overall levels of violence," he wrote.

In general, U.S. commanders have said violence in Afghanistan has increased over the past year and have requested an additional four brigades, which could mean about 20,000 troops. The reinforcements will be available as U.S. troop levels decline in Iraq, the Pentagon has said.

A brigade commander stationed in eastern Afghanistan, Col. John Johnson, said he has seen a decline in violence in his sector over the past several months.

Taliban and foreign fighters often hide in the region between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Johnson said the decline in fighting could be the result of increased Pakistani military activity in the area.