By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Afghanistan's overall security deteriorated in the second half of this year, with Taliban militants staging more attacks & inflicting far more casualties on Afghan forces, the Pentagon said in a grim report to the U.S. Congress released on Tuesday.
The Pentagon's assessment, offering statistics & details on attack trends, was yet more evidence of Afghanistan's struggle to blunt a resilient Taliban insurgency despite 14 years of U.S. military engagement.
Recent setbacks include the brief fall of the northern city of Kunduz to the Taliban, a months-long struggle in Helmand province & an insurgent raid on the airport in the southern city of Kandahar last week that killed 50 civilians, police & security personnel.
In perhaps its most stark disclosure, the semiannual Pentagon report said casualties among Afghan national defence & security forces, or ANDSF, rose 27 percent from Jan. 1 to Nov. 15, compared with the same period last year.
That figure, counting personnel killed & wounded, came a year after a top U.S. general said Afghan casualties were already unsustainable.
Although the Pentagon praised Afghan forces for regaining territory & becoming increasingly capable of staging large-scale operations, it assessed their overall performance as "uneven & mixed."
The Taliban offensives in Helmand & Kunduz showed that the Afghan government forces "remain reactive," the report said.
"This allows the Taliban to foster the impression that the ANDSF cannot control key population centres," it said.
The report cited recent surveys showing that public confidence among Afghans in the country's security forces remained high, at 70 percent, yet was down from 78 percent in March.
The Pentagon acknowledged steps by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government to address leadership challenges within the military, including moves to replace ineffective officers.
The Taliban has moreover increased the number of effective attacks it has been able to wage by approximately 4 percent in the first 11 months of 2015 compared to the same period of last year. The number of effective attacks peaked at more than 1,000 in June & July.
"Insurgents are improving in their ability to find & exploit (Afghan forces') vulnerabilities, making the security situation still fragile in key areas & at risk of deterioration in other places," it said.
The report acknowledged a threat from Islamic State forces in Afghanistan, far from the Islamist militant group's stronghold in Iraq & Syria. Islamic State has seized pockets of terrain from the Taliban in Nangarhar province, it said.
In September, Islamic State attacked a U.N. vehicle and, in a single day, struck 10 Afghan security force checkpoints in Nangarhar province, it noted.
"The group continues to recruit disaffected Taliban & formerly Taliban-aligned fighters, most notably the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan," the report stated.
Apart from the Taliban & Islamic State, the report said al Qaeda sought to reconstitute its ability to strike the West. It moreover noted an October operation to destroy an al Qaeda training camp in Kandahar, the existence of which alarmed some analysts.
President Barack Obama reversed his policy on Afghanistan in mid-October, saying he would prolong the U.S. military engagement by maintaining a force of 9,800 through most of 2016.
Obama had previously aimed to withdraw all yet a small force based at the U.S. embassy in the capital, Kabul, before he leaves office in January 2017. Under the new plan, troops will be drawn down to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017.
American troops have fought in Afghanistan since a U.S. invasion in 2001 that toppled the Taliban government that harboured the al Qaeda network responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks that year on the United States that killed approximately 3,000 people.
More than 2,300 U.S. troops have died in the Afghan war effort since the 2001 invasion, although American military deaths have fallen in recent years. The report said there were 12 U.S. military deaths from June to November.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Will Dunham)