A new Pentagon report states that enemy attacks have declined 16 percent since last year, but the U.S.-led coalition still faces potent challenges as the U.S. and NATO prepare to withdraw troops and turn over security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
What's more, the report warns that the Taliban is determined to make a comeback this spring and summer.
The insurgency can place large numbers of roadside bombs and carry out "high-profile attacks that disproportionately fuel a sense of insecurity," the report says.
The high number of U.S. casualties reveals a still-volatile war zone after nearly 11 years of war.
"It's taking so long because we're trying to do it right," said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday.
"It's about building a nation that has institutions to support it over time and can provide for its own security.
"[It's about] creating some space by lowering violence while we build up the [Afghan] national security forces."
According to the report, Afghan forces have "made impressive strides in performance" and take the lead in more than 40 percent of joint Afghan-NATO operations.
But Afghanistan's weak government and Pakistan's safe havens for militants continue to hamper progress in the Afghan war.
"The insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan," the report states.
Defense analyst Anthony H. Cordesman said the potential for progress in either area before the end of 2014 is doubtful.
There is little evidence that Afghan pledges to end corruption will produce anything more than symbolism, he said, adding that intensive Pakistani action against militant safe havens is unlikely.
Mr. Cordesman said the report provides an overview of progress in Afghanistan but does not include key data, such as whether the Afghan government is expanding its areas of influence.
"Most of the data that you see is on the tactical progress of the war," he said. "[But] these aren't the metrics you want to use if you really want to understand this war, which is essentially control of the population."
The semiannual report includes for the first time since its first publication in 2008 a section on "green-on-blue" incidents in which Afghan troops turned their weapons on U.S. or coalition members.
"While statistically small in number, green-on-blue attacks have a significant negative operational and strategic impact on the coalition mission in Afghanistan," the report states.
According to the report, from May 2007 to the end of March 2012, a total of 52 green-on-blue incidents occurred, resulting in the deaths of 86 troops and the wounding of 115 others.
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