About 660 militants were reported to have been killed by coalition and Afghan forces so far this year, compared with close to 3,000 militants last year. The NATO command does not issue reports on the number of insurgents its troops have killed, and Afghan military figures, from which the AP compiles its data, cannot be independently verified.
Still, there is little public outcry over the Afghan losses.
While the Afghan army's attrition rate spiked to 4.1 percent in January, it has dropped back closer to the annual average of 2.6 percent. The combined Afghan army and police roster remains in excess of 332,753, according to figures provided by NATO's training mission, and the combined forces are clawing back some new ground from the Taliban, U.S. and Afghan officials say.
Arrayed against the green Afghan forces is a still-formidable force of Taliban and other militants. Their numbers are small, at an estimated 20,000 to 30,000, compared with the Afghan security forces' strength.
But they are knitted into the rural fabric of much of Afghanistan, well-versed in guerrilla tactics and local terrain, well-supplied with explosives and ammunition and plugged into enough local tipsters to ambush Afghan security forces when they are at their most vulnerable.
By summer's end, the U.S., the Afghans and the Taliban should know whether Afghan forces have what it takes to hold their ground, Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, told the AP.
"If the Afghans perform in a manner that we expect them to, that's going to have a demoralizing effect on the Taliban," he said in his headquarters office in Kabul, the Afghan capital.
"It's going to reduce the capabilities of the Taliban psychologically, and as importantly, it's going to cause the Afghan people to be more confident" in their forces and less likely to support or join the Taliban, he added.
Senior administration and coalition officials said the goal is to reach a sort of bloody equilibrium, where the Afghan security forces hold the populated areas and major trade routes to allow commerce to grow, and thereby slowly diminish the ranks of the Taliban by providing other employment opportunities for would-be fighters.
"What they need to be able to do is to secure key areas ... and eventually wait out and let the insurgency wither away," said McGee, at his headquarters in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar province.
"It would be folly to try to roll up into every valley and fight these guys. It is what we used to do," McGee said. "I think (the Afghans) will pursue a very different approach than we did .... more patient, more focused on endurance as opposed to attrition of the enemy, and I think eventually the Taliban will lose relevance and support over time," he said.
The Taliban know this is a make-or-break season for the Afghan forces and are targeting accordingly.
From November 2012 through the end of January, 75 percent of attacks were against coalition forces and only 25 percent were targeted at Afghans, according to a senior coalition intelligence official, who spoke anonymously as a condition of discussing the confidential statistics.
This past winter, the numbers were reversed, with 75 percent of the attacks now striking Afghans and 25 percent targeting coalition or coalition and Afghan joint patrols.
The police remain the Afghans' most vulnerable target. They're usually in lightly defended posts, in remote areas and still considered far less trained, with incidents of drug use and corruption still common.
But NATO deputy commander Lt. Gen. Nick Carter said five of Afghanistan's 26 army brigades, each with 450 to 600 troops, can operate independently, and an additional 16 are capable of operating with limited advice from the U.S.-led international coalition.
U.S. military officers who monitor performance say they've tracked a marked improvement in Afghan army units during the past 12 months, with 101 units improving and only seven dropping in the ratings.
One of those newly independent Afghan army brigades is in Helmand province, scene of some of the fiercest fighting, and worst losses, for U.S. Marines.
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