The difficulties of figuring how one side is doing militarily in a war where terrain is less than important are legion, even without allowing for errors:
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan incorrectly reported a decline in Taliban attacks last year, and officials said Tuesday that there was actually no change in the number of attacks on international troops from 2011 to 2012
The reputed 7% decline previously reported had been the basis for administration statements that the Afghanistan insurgency was on its way out:
In mid-December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said “violence is down,” in 2012, and that Afghan forces “have gotten much better at providing security” in areas where they have taken the lead role. He said the Taliban can be expected to continue to attack, “but overall they are losing.”
Well, maybe. It’s hard to know, given a lack of information from the other side. Was the same number of attacks the sign of a Taliban at the same strength? A Taliban that was stronger but aware that the US is leaving in 2014 and thus simply sustaining a certain level of intensity? A Taliban that was weakening but throwing out last ditch efforts to keep mounting assaults? Even those questions are inaccurate, assuming as they do that there is a single Taliban with a unified command and control.
Well, maybe, redux. The “Afghanistan NGO Safety Office” thinks that Taliban attacks went down “by more than a quarter in 2012.” It would be helpful if the Taliban would report its efforts (preferably in an Excel spreadsheet) to a wide range of evaluative bodies. Assessment is for everyone, I have often been informed.
What I think is striking is that the result of insurgent attacks have been substantially less effective, at least against the coalition. Coalition fatalities in 2011 were 566. In 2012, they were 402, the lowest number since 2008. An even more extreme difference has been between Jan-Feb of 2012, when 59 coalition soldiers were killed, and Jan-Feb 2013, when 9 have.* That’s the lowest number of fatalities in any Jan-Feb period since 2005. In fact, the last seven months of 2012 have seen the fewest fatalities in any matching seven month period since 2008. That would strongly suggest that the coalition is winning.
Except, of course, perhaps not, because the final six months have also seen the highest number of fatalities in the Afghan Army, so perhaps the Taliban has simply turned its attention to the native military, a bad sign. Or perhaps–to reverse it–the Afghan Army has grown competent enough to handle a major chunk of the operational burden, a good sign.
As I said in the comment thread of this post: welcome to counterinsurgency.
*February is obviously not quite over.