Foreign troops fighting in Afghanistan continue to pay a high toll, with more than 560 killed last year, 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 US military surge which saw an extra 33,000 troops on the ground.
However, the UN 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 last year was 566 and includes at least 417 from the US and 45 from Britain, according to an AFP tally based on figures from independent Web site 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 last year was added to on the final day of the year when ISAF announced that 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 US troops perished.
However, 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 early last month.
The surge troops — ordered in by US 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. One Western military official said some units have already been told not to carry out offensive operations.
Since the US-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,” ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson said.
While fewer ISAF troops on the ground in the coming years may mean fewer coalition deaths, the civilian toll will not necessarily fall.
The UN 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 later this month.
Insurgents are blamed for 80 percent of the deaths, which are mostly caused by homemade bombs (IED).
NATO, which says enemy attacks are down 8 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.