Afghanistan: December 2011

In the year 2011, a total of 565 NATO forces stationed in Afghanistan were killed -- down from 711 in 2010 -- marking the largest decline in annual deaths during the decade-long conflict. The large number of NATO soldiers on the ground appears to have made a difference, a fact that worries Afghans as the U.S. and others accelerate their planned pullback. This year, 23,000 U.S. soldiers are scheduled to depart the country, heading toward a full withdrawal by 2014. For now, U.S. troops appear to be focusing on intensive training of Afghan forces and preparing for the logistical challenge of shipping home some $30 billion worth of military gear. Gathered here are images of the people and places involved in this conflict over the past month, as part of an ongoing monthly series on Afghanistan. [42 photos total]

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Cpl. James Hernandez, a combat engineer with Alpha Company, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, and a native of Goodyear, Arizona, uses an electric saw to dismantle a HESCO barrier at Firebase Saenz, in Helmand province, on December 13, 2011. FB Saenz is the first of several patrol bases being demilitarized by the Marines of 9th ESB throughout the month of December. (USMC/Cpl. Bryan Nygaard) #
Provincial Reconstruction Team Kapisa, currently training to deploy to Afghanistan at Camp Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center, was the first PRT to train on a new virtual reality combat simulator on December 16, 2011, designed specifically to help soldiers better deal with the number one killer in the contemporary operating environment: improvised explosive devices. (US Army/Staff Sgt. Matthew Scotten) #
Afghan residents wait for a meeting in Governor's Office with officials in Pul-e Alam, a town in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan, on November 28, 2011. (Reuters/Umit Bektas) #
Firefighters extinguish burning NATO supply oil tankers and goods trucks at a terminal following an attack by gunmen in Quetta, Pakistan, on December 8, 2011. 20 trucks were ablaze after a rocket attack, officials said. (Banaras Khan/AFP/Getty Images) #
Blood flies in the air as Afghan Shi'ite Muslim men flagellate themselves during a Muharram procession in Kabul December 3, 2011. Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar is observed around the world for ten days of mourning in remembrance of martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood) #
Afghan Shi'ite Muslims wash their knives and bloodstained clothes after beating themselves with knives during the Muharram procession in Kabul, Afghanistan, on December 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq) #
A detachment of Marines from Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1 in Afghanistan completed their first unmanned aerial system cargo delivery in a combat zone on December 17, 2011. The unmanned helicopter moved about 3,500 pounds of food and supplies from Camp Dwyer to troops at Combat Outpost Payne. The helicopter, an unmanned variant of the K-MAX, completed the delivery in about an hour and a half. (USMC/Cpl. Justin M. Boling) #
French soldiers from the 1st Infantry Regiment stand at the Nijrab FOB (Forward Operating Base) military base in Tora, in the Surobi province in Afghanistan, on December 31, 2011. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images) #
The family of Marine Staff Sgt. Vincent Bell of Detroit, sits during funeral services for Bell at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, Tuesday, December 27, 2011. Bell died while serving in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) #
Ekhtiar-o-Din palace in Herat city, west of Afghanistan, viewed on December 3, 2011. The US embassy in Afghanistan gave one million USD in funding to facilitate reconstruction of the palace. (Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images) #
People react seconds after a suicide blast targeting a Shi'ite Muslim gathering in Kabul, on December 6, 2011. A suicide bomber attacked the Shi'ite Muslim shrine in central Kabul, where a crowd of hundreds had gathered for the festival of Ashura, killing up to 20 people in what appeared to be an unprecedented sectarian attack (Reuters/Najibullah Musafer) #

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Tarana, age 12, stands screaming, surrounded by the bodies of men, women and children who were just killed by a suicide bomber who detonated a bomb during a religious ceremony in Kabul on December 6, 2011. "When I could stand up, I saw that everybody was around me on the ground, really bloody. I was really, really scared," said the girl, whose name means "melody" in English. Out of 17 women and children from her family who went to a riverside shrine in Kabul that day to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashura, seven died including her seven-year-old brother Shoaib. More than 70 people lost their lives in all, and at least nine other members of Tarana's family were wounded. The blast has prompted fears that Afghanistan could see the sort of sectarian violence that has pitched Shiite against Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Pakistan. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images) #
U.S. Army Spc. Devon Boxa from San Angelo, Texas, a member of Company B, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment, admires the Afghan landscape from the back door of a CH-47D Chinook helicopter as another Chinook follows. The choppers were flying from Kabul to Jalalabad on December 17, 2011. (US Army/Spc. Ken Scar) #
A Marine Corps UH-1Y Huey with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 lands in Helmand province, Afghanistan, on December 25, 2011. The Marine Corps helicopter squadron flew thousands of pounds of care packages to infantry Marines at austere combat outposts in Afghanistan on Christmas Day. (USMC) #
A villager makes his way across a bridge that connects Qasamabad, Afghanistan, to a school in the village of Baghban in Daykundi province, on December 10, 2011. Coalition special operations forces evaluated the condition of the bridge to explore the possibility of making improvements to provide students with a safer way to cross over the river below. (US Navy/Petty Officer 1st Class Matthew Leistikow) #
Grover, a character from "Sesame Street" walks with Afghans at the French Culture Center in Kabul, on November 30, 2011. Children in Afghanistan are now able to start their education as millions of preschoolers around in the world have: by watching "Sesame Street" on TV. (Reuters/Omar Sobhani) #
Aerial view of Afghanistan's Hindu Kush mountain range, taken on January 1, 2012. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images) #
Afghanistan's commando forces stand guard near four Taliban fighters in Herat, on December 29, 2011. According to the Afghan officials, the Taliban fighters were captured during an operation carried out by Afghanistan National Army (ANA) commandos. (Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images) #
Children look at a German soldier of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) as he smokes during a break while on a patrol in the village of Isa Khel in Chahar Dara district, on December 16, 2011. (Reuters/Thomas Peter) #
In this Sunday, December 11, 2011 photo, masked Pakistani Taliban militants take part in a training session in an area of Pakistan's tribal South Waziristan region along the Afghan border. Associated Press reporter, photographer and videographer Ishtiaq Mahsud spent six days with fighters from the Pakistani Taliban close to the Afghan border. (AP Photo/Ishtiaq Mahsud) #
Masked Pakistani Taliban militants take part in a training session in an area of Pakistan's tribal South Waziristan region along the Afghan border, on December 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Ishtiaq Mahsud) #
Travis Beard, organizer of "Secret Cinema", screens a film at a secret cinema in Kabul, on December 8, 2011. In a dusty, dimly lit Kabul basement, British cinema fan club "Secret Cinema" launched their first movie event outside Britain on Thursday evening, bringing costume, audience participation and light-hearted mystery to the high-security Afghan capital. (Reuters/Ahmad Masood) #
Afghan Elvis, singer Farhad Darya, a United Nations goodwill ambassador performs during a concert for Afghan girls and women at Amani high school in Kabul on November 24, 2011. Dubbed the Afghan Elvis, Darya may be the only man in his country who can reduce an audience of headscarf-clad women to a screaming, waving, whistling throng. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images) #
Young Afghan girls and women enjoy a concert by Afghan Elvis, singer Farhad Darya, at Amani high school in Kabul, on November 24, 2011. In a country where women still have limited rights and music was banned under the Taliban until ten years ago, Darya is an icon for millions and his popularity was clear at a rare, top security, female-only show in Kabul. The show was shrouded in secrecy due to fears it could be targeted by the Taliban. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images) #
A U.S. Army soldier leans over, in pain after he was injured by an IED (improvised explosive device) in a MEDEVAC helicopter in Logar province, eastern Afghanistan, on November 21, 2011. (Reuters/Umit Bektas) #
An Afghan boy rides his skateboard at the Naderkhan hill in Kabul, Afghanistan, on November 14, 2011. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid) #
West Point Cadet Lt. Michael Norris embraces his mother, Terri Norris, as they walk behind the remains of brother and son Army Pfc. Cody Norris, 20, upon the conclusion of the funeral service at First United Methodist Church in La Porte, Texas, on November 21, 2011. Army Pfc. Cody Norris died November 9 in Kandahar province in Afghanistan of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with gunfire. It was his first deployment. (AP Photo/Houston Chronicle, Mayra Beltran) #
A U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle from the 335th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron takes off from Bagram Air Field, on December 21, 2011. (USAF/Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht) #
Twelve-year-old Tarana Akbari is kissed by her mother Bibi Hava, in their living room of their home in Kabul on December 10, 2011. Days earlier, Akbari was photographed crying surrounded by injured and dead relatives (photo #12 above), after surviving a bomb blast on December 6. Afghanistan said the death toll from bombings targeting the Shi'ite Muslim holy day of Ashura, which raised fears the nation could face an eruption of sectarian violence, has climbed to 80. (Massoud Hossaini/AFP/Getty Images) #
In this photo from Saturday, June 4, 2011, injured United States Marine Cpl. Burness Britt reacts after being lifted onto a medevac helicopter from the U.S. Army's Task Force Lift "Dust Off", Charlie Company 1-214 Aviation Regiment. Britt was wounded in an IED strike near Sangin, in the Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan. AP Photographer Anja Niedringhaus followed Britt's progress after taking this photo of him, and six months later, met up with him to see how far he'd come. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus) #
In this Tuesday, December 13, 2011 photo, injured United States Marine Cpl. Burness Britt reacts after seeing pictures of his evacuation laid out on his bed in the Hunter Holmes Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia. Britt is facing a long recovery after a large piece of shrapnel from an IED in Afghanistan in June 2011 cut a major artery on his neck. During his first operation in Afghanistan he suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed. AP Photographer Anja Niedringhaus followed Britt's progress after taking photos of his evacuation, and six months later, met up with him to see how far he'd come. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus) #
The Marines of Team 1, Border Adviser Team 1, provided support during Operation Eagle Hunt under harsh conditions. Day one of the operation started off for the Marines with a three-mile trek through sandy plains before reaching a compound they would later call home for the majority of the mission. The team's mission was to provide support for the Afghan Border Police and Afghan Uniformed Police, who spearheaded the operation. (USMC/Cpl. Marco Mancha) #
Afghan policemen perform a demonstration drill during a graduation ceremony at a police training center in Herat, on December 22, 2011. Some 500 officers graduated following their eight-week training course at Ansar 606 police training center in the western province of Herat. (Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images) #
Coalition forces close air support dropped 500 pound bombs on enemy fighting positions during a fire fight in Gelan district, Ghazni province, Afghanistan, December 27. The fire fight occurred during a clearing operation aimed at disrupting insurgent supply lines and safe havens. (US Army/Spc. Michael Creech) #
Brandy and Levi Hoyle hug a life-size cut-out photo of their husband and father Andy, in their Coquille, Oregon home, on December 23, 2011. Andy Hoyle is currently stationed in Afghanistan, and the photo they call "Flat Andy" travels around town with them wherever they go. Flat Andy has become well known in the Coquille area. (AP Photo/The World, Lou Sennick) #
Afghan boys play football in a field in Kabul, on December 21, 2011. Football is one of the most popular games in Afghanistan and is played on dusty dry ground more often than grass. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images) #
An Afghan National Army soldier's boots, covered in blood, lie on the floor at 125 BSB Forward Surgical Team Task Force Mustang's clinic in Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in Logar province, on November 12, 2011. (Reuters/Umit Bektas) #
From left, Elaine Deamer, Jeanelle Costner, and Maritza Batallas help Ann Marie Toebes try on a dress during "Operation Wedding Gown" at Poffie Girls bridal boutique in Gastonia, North Carolina, on November 20, 2011. Toebes, from Cary, NC, is a medical student at the Univeristy of North Carolina and is engaged to U.S. Army Spc. Peter Richards who is currently deployed in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/The Gaston Gazette, Ben Goff) #
Santa Claus, portrayed by Tech. Sgt. Mike Morris, 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron Loadmaster Flight NCO in charge and native of Charleston, South Carolina, pushes a pallet of fuel onto a C-17 Globemaster III prior to a mission, on December 23, 2011. (USAF/Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon) #
Afghan child bride Sahar Gul, 15, looks at Afghan Minister of Women's Affairs Husn Banu Ghazanfar (right) as she recovers at a hospital in Kabul, on December 31, 2011. Afghan police rescued the teenage girl who was beaten and locked up in a toilet for over five months after she defied her in-laws who tried to force her into prostitution, officials said on December 27. Sahar Gul was found in the basement of her husband's house in northeastern Baghlan province late on December 26, 2011, after her parents reported her disappearance to the police. (Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images) #
Afghan National Army Sgt. Shah Baaz uses a metal detector to sweep the ground under the watch of U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Zachary Fisher, a 22-year-old fire team leader with 3rd Platoon, India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, on December 30, 2011. (USMC/Cpl. Reece Lodder) #
Ornaments and notes, left on a tree in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, on December 16, 2011. Section 60 is where many of the soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. Mentioned on the star, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Matthew West had started his second tour in Afghanistan in July of 2010, working as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist. He was killed a little more than a month later in an explosion that also killed four other soldiers. West left behind his wife and three young children. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) #

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