A Pentagon report on Afghanistan says enemy attacks have increased slightly since last year and the Taliban will try to reclaim lost territory as coalition forces withdraw combat troops by the end of 2014.
However, coalition and Afghan forces have made measured progress toward strategic goals, according to the report, released Monday.
Taliban combat abilities have declined from their peak in 2010, but the militants remain "resilient and determined," the report states, and they will seek to regain ground and influence by relying on high-profile attacks, intimidation, assassinations and roadside bombs.
Afghanistan's intelligence director escaped a Taliban assassination attempt Thursday in the capital, Kabul, security officials said. Coalition and Afghan forces on Saturday captured a Taliban leader who is suspected to have helped transport the homemade bomb components used in the attack.
"We are not seeing the Taliban come back, but we do see the Taliban intent on coming back, and sort of stepping outside the report, it's very clear to us that the Taliban over this winter are telling their forces to stay in Afghanistan to fight at a higher level, because normally their leadership go back to Pakistan," a senior defense official said during a background briefing on the report.
"They're trying to respond to the continued failure to take back key areas. While they're giving that message to their forces ... we don't see that actually happening on the ground, and that will be an area that we'll [be] looking at for our next report," the defense official said.
According to the report, which covers April to September, enemy-initiated attacks increased by 1 percent compared with the same period last year, partly because a reduced poppy harvest enabled insurgents to leave their fields and join the fight.
"Yes, there is more violence in some areas, but there's significantly less violence in the populated areas," said the official, who also attributed the increase in Taliban attacks to coalition troops' entry into regions now patrolled by Afghan forces.
"Key areas in Helmand [province], Argandhab, Panjawai and Zhari [districts] — we just started going into later. Now those are some of the areas of most enemy-initiated attacks because it's the Taliban heartland," the official said.
U.S. and coalition casualties have declined by more than 30 percent from a year ago, but the number of Afghan troop casualties has increased, the official said.
The report notes that insider attacks, in which Afghan security personnel turn their weapons against coalition trainers, have "the potential to adversely affect the coalition's political landscape. ... It remains clear that the insider threat is ... an enemy tactic and has a cultural component."
Efforts to reduce such attacks need more time to work, although "the number of insider attacks has dropped off sharply from the peak in August," the report states.
Before a spike in August, the average number of insider attacks per month was roughly three, resulting in an average of four deaths per month. After an unusual spike in August of 12 attacks resulting in 15 deaths, the average number of attacks per month have dropped back down to roughly four, and the average of deaths per month to five.
According to the report, coalition and Afghan forces have made measured progress toward strategic goals, such as Afghan forces taking the lead more often in security operations.
But Taliban safe havens in northwestern Pakistan, Afghan government limitations and corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan, the report states.
U.S. relations with Pakistan have improved, and Pakistani leaders now say they "see a stable and secure Afghanistan as a primary security interest of Pakistan," the defense official said.
"What we've heard from the Pakistanis over the last several months is very promising," the official added.
"The safe havens do continue to exist ... in terms of the security side of things, our objective is to work with the Afghan forces to give them the capability to defend their own territory, including from attacks from the safe havens. That's going to be a big challenge, but we believe that it's possible," the official said.
Military analyst Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the report shows "real progress" in Afghanistan but not as much as had been hoped before the removal of the 33,000 U.S. surge troops in September.
Although the Afghan army has shown progress in training, Mr. Cordesman said, the attrition rate remains high.
It is "far from clear" whether Afghan soldiers can take the lead in security operations with Afghan police by 2014, he said.
The race is between coalition efforts to prepare the Afghans to take that lead and the end of 2014, when most international troops are scheduled to leave the country, he said.
"It's far from clear we're winning that race," Mr. Cordesman said.
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