Pentagon: Afghan casualties increase with 'resilient' Taliban

Pentagon: Afghan casualties increase with 'resilient' Taliban
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Civilian casualties in Afghanistan are at record highs, according to a Pentagon report released Friday that paints a bleak picture of a country where the Taliban continues its resurgence and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) continues to be uneven.

“The security situation in Afghanistan continues to be dominated by a resilient insurgency,” the report to Congress reads. “Over the last six months, both ANDSF and insurgent casualties have increased, continuing their upward trend from the previous reporting period. Increased insurgent fighting in urban areas has also contributed to record-high civilian casualties, primarily caused by insurgent and extremist groups.”

The 116-page report covers the period from Dec. 1 to May 31 and follows a similarly pessimistic report in December that said the security situation in Afghanistan was deteriorating.

Still, Friday’s report sounded a slightly more optimistic note than the previous report.

“The Afghan government remains in control of all major population centers and key lines of communication, and the ANDSF continues to deny the Taliban strategic ground throughout the country,” the new report says. “ANDSF performance in the first half of 2016 improved over late 2015, owing in part to the implementation of a sustainable security strategy that better allocates forces across the country, and in part as a result of incorporating lessons learned after the first year of the [Resolute Support] format of the NATO mission.”

The release of the report comes as the Obama administration is considering whether to adjust its troop drawdown plans. Right now, there are about 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Plans call for that number to drop to 5,500 by the end of the year.

But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, recently completed a 90-day review of the security situation, which was largely expected to result in a recommendation to keep more troops in the country.

Last week, the Pentagon announced that President Obama approved expanded authorities for U.S. forces in Afghanistan that give them greater power to target the Taliban, in a nod to the Taliban's increasing strength.

During the first half of 2016, there were fewer high profile attacks by the Taliban than last year, according to the Pentagon report. But the attacks that did happen were deadlier.

“These increasingly lethal [high-profile attacks] underscore the importance of [high-profile attacks] to the insurgency’s ability to sway public opinion regarding the Afghan government’s ability to secure the population,” the report says.

For example, 23 percent of Afghans say the security in their community is good, compared with 39 percent who said so last year, according to the report.

Additionally, 42 percent say security is worse than when the Taliban controlled the government, a historically high percentage, the report says.

From January to May, the Resolute Support Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team documented 760 civilian deaths in Afghanistan and 1,736 injuries. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan documented a higher rate of civilian causalities, which the Pentagon attributed to different reporting methods.

“However, both sources indicate rising civilian casualties compared to both the previous reporting period and the same time period in 2015,” the report adds.

The ANDSF continues to be uneven but has improved from last year, according to the report. For example, the forces have improved their intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

But challenges remain for the ANDSF, including a steady 2.4 percent attrition rate and a struggle to proactively pursue the Taliban.

Though the Taliban remains strong, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) nascent presence in Afghanistan has regressed from about six provinces to just a few districts in southern Nangarhar Province, according to the report. The report attributes ISIS’s decline to U.S. airstrikes, Afghan forces, competition from the Taliban and a lack of support from locals.

“Although IS-K is attempting low-level recruiting and distributing propaganda in various provinces across Afghanistan, it does not have the ability to conduct multiple operations across the country at the same time,” the report says, using another acronym for ISIS’s Afghan affiliate. “Moreover, command and control and funding from core ISIL is limited.”