WASHINGTON — Afghanistan remains a violent place, but major cities have recently made security gains and the United States is on track to hand over security responsibilities to Afghan forces and wrap up the war in two years, according to the Pentagon’s latest biannual report to Congress on progress in Afghanistan.
The number of attacks in the first nine months of 2012 was higher than before the U.S. troop surge that began in 2009, but fell by 3 percent from the same period in 2011. Violence is much lower now than at the height of the surge in 2010, the report said.
Attacks rose 1 percent during the past six months, as NATO and Afghan troops contended with Taliban forces trying regain territory lost in the surge, officials said Monday.
“We are not seeing the Taliban coming back, but we do see the Taliban intent on coming back,” a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon, speaking on the condition of anonymity. As a result, the official said, Taliban commanders are telling foot soldiers to stay in Afghanistan for a winter of fighting.
Terrorist safe havens in Pakistan –- identified in the last report in May as the No. 1 threat to Afghan security -– remain a danger, the report said, but “limited institutional capacity of the Afghan government, and endemic corruption” are now as much a risk as safe havens, the report said.
Afghan National Security Forces continue to gain in skill and numbers, and were “unilaterally” conducting about 80 percent of total operations this fall, while NATO and U.S. troops increasingly are taking on support roles and conduct about 10 percent of total operations without Afghan help, the report said
By the end of September, 30 Afghan army brigades and 49 police units were rated “independent with advisors.” That means they still lack advanced capabilities like air support and intelligence, but “the actual fighting, the actual operations on the ground, the actual patrolling” are done by Afghans, the senior official said.
As a result, ANSF this year began to take the brunt of the casualties, the report said. At the same time, U.S. combat deaths have fallen to their lowest level since the surge began, with casualties falling by more than 30 percent from 2011.
USA Today on Monday reported that U.S. combat deaths in 2012 numbered 301, a drop of some 25 percent over the same period in 2011 and the lowest rate since 2009, when the surge was revving up.
A total of 37 “green on blue” attacks on NATO and U.S. forces by Afghan forces have resulted in 51 coalition deaths in 2012, but the pace of attacks has fallen sharply since August, when ISAF Commander Gen. John Allen put new measures in place to prevent them.
Insurgent violence in major cities fell sharply this year compared to 2011, the report said. Attacks in Kabul dropped 22 percent, 62 percent in Kandahar and 88 percent in Mazar-i-Sharif. Kunduz bucked the trend, with attacks rising 2 percent.
More fighting took place in remote areas, particularly in the so-called “Taliban Heartland” in southern Afghanistan, where 12 percent of all attacks took place in districts with only one percent of the national population, the report said.
“The fact that it’s in less populated areas means it’s less effective violence,” the official said.
Ahmad Majidyar, a senior research associate with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agrees that the surge was successful in the southern part of Afghanistan –- primarily Kandahar and Helmand provinces –- but said eastern Afghanistan remains a haven for the Haqqani terrorist network.
The surge troops stopped the momentum of the Taliban in the south, helped the Afghan government expand and allowed the improvement of Afghan security forces in that area, Majidyar said.
While the report notes that the Taliban will likely try to regain lost territory, Majidyar says he thinks their strategy now is more focused on intimidating the Afghan people while they wait until coalition forces have left to attempt to topple the Afghan government .
Though the surge pushed the Taliban out of some areas, no one knows how durable the gains will be, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, foreign policy fellow at the Brooking Institution and author of a new book about the future of Afghanistan.
Whether the transition in Afghanistan is really on track, as the report claims, is questionable, she said.
“To the extent that we define transition as getting out of Afghanistan, which I see as increasingly the mood… then we are certainly on track,” Felbab-Brown said. “If one defines on track as leaving behind a stable government with a capable security component, then no, we are not on track.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.