WASHINGTON – As the United States withdraws combat forces from Afghanistan, Afghan police and army units are suffering a sharply higher casualty rate and in some cases, have negotiated local non-aggression pacts with insurgents to avoid coming under attack, according to a new Pentagon report.
Afghan Army and police casualties have soared by 79% this year, while casualties from the international coalition have fallen by 59%, according to the congressionally mandated report, which covers developments in Afghanistan from April to September.
The casualty shift has emerged as Afghan troops have taken the lead in combat operations. U.S. forces, other than special operations units, in most cases no longer join combat missions as the clock ticks down toward a full pullout by the end of next year. About 39,000 U.S. troops are now in the country.
The Pentagon report paints a mixed picture of Afghan security after 12 years of war. It warns that the Afghan police and armed forces could be overwhelmed by Islamist insurgents unless Washington and its allies provide financial support and training after their troops leave.
Afghan forces “will be at high risk” without foreign aid and military assistance, including advisers, the report concludes. With such assistance, it adds, they “will remain on a path toward an enduring ability to overmatch the Taliban.”
The top commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, has privately pushed the Obama administration to keep as many as 12,000 troops there after 2014 and has drafted plans to bring the numbers down gradually in later years, officials familiar with his thinking say.
But White House officials are divided on how many troops should remain. Some advisers have argued that none should stay, while others have advocated for keeping 6,000 to 9,000, which the Pentagon says is the minimum force necessary for training, force protection and limited special operations raids.
In what appeared to be an argument to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan, the report warns that Al Qaeda “maintains a limited presence” in mountains near the Pakistani border. The Pentagon long has downplayed the terrorist network’s presence in Afghanistan.
Although only a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives are believed involved, “their presence continues to demonstrate their intent to maintain the region as an alternate safe haven to their sanctuaries in Pakistan,” the report says.
In a sign that security has worsened since the pullout began, the report says some Afghan military units are negotiating deals with local insurgent commanders not to attack one another.
The deals are “localized, often personality-driven, and largely influenced by tribal dynamics,” the report says. Most have occurred in southern Afghanistan, particularly in northern Helmand Province, a longtime Taliban stronghold that U.S. Marines turned over to Afghan troops in the last year.
In some areas, the report adds, the arrangements stem from fears by Afghan forces “of being isolated and overwhelmed by what they perceive as a superior insurgent force.”
The insurgency remains potent outside major cities, but the report concludes the Taliban has failed so far to capitalize militarily on the U.S. pullback.
The Taliban continues to battle for control in some sparsely populated areas, particularly in the south and east. But Afghan troops “have proven to be a resilient and capable force, and have largely been able to defend against direct insurgent attacks,” the report said.