Five out of the Afghan army’s 26 security brigades are now capable of operating independently, rather than just one as reported last September, a top NATO officer said Wednesday.

British Army Lt. Gen. Nick Carter, deputy commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, said Afghan forces are performing impressively on a tactical level, and 90 percent of the Afghan population is now being guarded by Afghan security forces.

Carter said an additional 16 brigades have been judged capable of operating mostly independently with ISAF advisers. Right now, he noted, Afghan army units rely on ISAF troops for air support, counter-improvised explosive device capabilities, logistics and military intelligence.

Without ISAF help for those capabilities, he added,” I think the Afghans would find life quite difficult at the moment.”

He said he believes that by the end of 2014, when NATO combat troops are scheduled to depart, most of the brigades will be able to hold their own.

The Government Accountability Office released a report in February accusing ISAF of inflating the number of combat-ready ANSF brigades by dropping its standards, abandoning the “independent” classification in favor of calling brigades “independent with advisers” as the highest rating.

Despite two complex attacks by the insurgents in the past three days in Jalalabad and Helmand, Carter said he does not expect this year’s fighting season to be more vicious than last summer’s, and said violence in the first quarter of 2013 is down 14 percent from the first quarter of 2012.

Earlier this month, ISAF spokespeople said they would no longer release statistics on enemy-initiated attacks. The numbers came under fire after a widely touted 7 percent drop in attacks turned out to be a “data-entry error” rather than a real decrease.

ISAF spokesman Col. Thomas Collins said Carter was referring to a drop in violence in the five districts of central Helmand province.

“We no longer post security statistics to our website,” he added, “but that does not mean that we can’t use them to illustrate a point.”

Carter said he expects several areas to be hotly contested in the coming fighting season, including the border region with Pakistan, Helmand, Kandahar, Kabul and the provinces surrounding Kabul.

“All of that you might think is quite rosy,” he added, “but I believe it’s realistic.”

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