New information out of Afghanistan shows a slight decrease in the number of attacks on allied forces there, though there are troubling details hidden in the numbers, experts say.
Attacks on coalition troops dropped in October and fell 10 percent in the last three months compared to the same time last year, according to monthly data from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force. This is a positive sign for Afghan watchers, following a slight uptick in attacks in September, as well as in the beginning of this year's fighting season in April, May, and June.
The rate of attacks shows a decline from 2010, when engagements spiked 77 percent following a surge in U.S. troops deployed the year before. It has leveled off much more since 2011.
However, ISAF countries such as the U.S., Australia and France have withdrawn large numbers of their troops this year, which might also account for the drop in overall skirmishes. Now that the U.S. planned withdrawal in 2014 is well established, the Taliban may be waiting for American troops to depart before making a final push.
"The Taliban still sees this as very much a waiting game," says Omar Lamrani, a military analyst with the private intelligence company Stratfor. "They understand in 2014 their chances of victory are much higher than they are now."
"There is no reason for exhausting themselves completely before 2014," he says.
It is important not to overemphasize the effect of the surge, says Lamrani. It undoubtedly had a considerable effect on disrupting the Taliban, but the militant group is known for its ability to rebuild quite quickly, he says.
Coalition troops have practically ceded "large swaths" of Taliban strongholds, he says, such as parts of the notoriously violent Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan where insurgent forces can regroup.
The ISAF numbers show fighting has increased 13 percent in the north and 21 percent in the west – regions that have made up less than 10 percent of the overall fighting in the last year.
The White House and Pentagon have not yet decided on the total number of troops they plan to leave behind, Pentagon spokesman George Little told reporters on Tuesday, though some estimates place that around 10,000. Coalition commander Marine Gen. John Allen has proposed a force of between 6,000 and 15,000.
The U.S. has wrestled with how to portray this strategy, not wanting to announce tactics while also reassuring Americans that the bulk of the fighting is coming to a close.
In remarks at the Willard Hotel earlier this month, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated Afghan forces will take "full responsibility for security at the end of 2014," while also issuing this declaration to the Taliban and other militant groups, such as al Qaeda:
"We are not going anywhere; our commitment to Afghanistan is long-term; you cannot wait us out."
There are pockets of excellence among Afghan forces, Lamrani says, such as with their special operations units, and some within the regular army. However, removing allied troops and money will be a severe shock to the country.
"You look at helicopters being replaced by donkeys," he says. "It sounds funny, but it's the reality over there."
A lack of education, infrastructure, and governmental accountability paint a bleak picture for a modernizing country where fewer than a third of the population can read and write, according to the most recent CIA data. The U.S. Special Investigator for Afghanistan Reconstruction believes these are among the reasons why local forces will not be able to maintain security.
A remaining allied force of 10,000 troops or fewer, combined with 21st-century warfighting tactics, could arguably still maintain security.
"With these plans the U.S. has, they do have a lot of bandwidth to respond to transnational threats," Lamrani says, referring to foreign fighters who may be able to enter the country. "The mission is much less about defeating the Taliban as it is having the capability to respond to transnational threats from Afghanistan."
That is a "considerable infrastructure" to accommodate a surge in fighting, he says, though after 2014 would also yield significant domestic issues.
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Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at email@example.com