Last year marked the 11th year of the war in Afghanistan. Disturbing trends in the number of Afghan attacks on coalition troops accompanied positive declines in Improvised Explosive Device attacks and overall allied casualties.
The end of the combat mission in Afghanistan is on the horizon, but there is still a tremendous amount of work to do.
As the U.S. enters the draw-down phase of the war, Afghan watchers predict some sizeable changes in 2013.
THE PRICE OF WAR
Improvised Explosive Devices remain the "principal means" for insurgents to fight, says the International Security Assistance Force. Roughly 70 percent of the civilian casualties caused by insurgents were from IED explosions, according to the most recent figures.
However, the number of IED attacks dropped 17 percent during the peak fighting season of May through August 2012, where the attacks rose above 700 in a month only once. This was a decrease from three months in the summer of 2011 and two months in the summer of 2010.
There was also a decrease in coalition casualties, including a total of 396 allied deaths in 2012, iCasualties reports. American troops made up the lion's share of these with 301 killed, followed by 44 from the United Kingdom.
Leading up to 2014, the anticipated final year of full-scale deployments to the region, troop levels dropped significantly. There were 130,386 ISAF forces in Afghanistan at the beginning of 2012, including 90,000 U.S. troops. The total count shrank to 102,011 as of Dec. 3, 2012, of which 68,000 are American.
ARE THE AFGHANS READY?
As of March 2012, the Afghan National Army was comprised of 195,000 troops with 149,208 officers in the Afghan National Police Force, according to NATO numbers.
By December, those numbers fell to 178,501 and 148,539, respectively.
The difference is due to "average levels of attrition," according to an ISAF spokeswoman, as well as the ANA's slowing its recruitment efforts after reaching its ceiling of 187,000 soldiers.
"The focus of the training mission is now on increasing the quality of the force; developing the right balance of seniority, skills, and specializations in the ANA that are vital to their long term sustainability and success," Canadian Army Capt. Karina Holder tells U.S. News.
But Afghan watchers are worried about another growing statistic that they say is a better indicator of the situation in Afghanistan: green-on-blue attacks.
These skirmishes between allied troops and the Afghan forces they are supposed to train shot up in 2012 to 42 incidents as of November, according to the Institute for the Study of War. There were only 15 the previous year, and five in 2009 and 2010.
"The insider attacks, the green on blue attacks, are very harmful to the U.S. mission there," says Nora Bensahel, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
"It has really limited the ability of U.S. forces to train Afghan forces," she says, "which is ultimately the key mission for the U.S., so we can leave behind some sort of credible security forces."
Allied forces responded by tightening the rules of engagement, also making it harder for the one-on-one training necessary between coalition and Afghan forces.
Some experts see a silver lining in this new distance between the forces.
"You're at a point where you want to push these Afghan units into the lead," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "Therefore the timing was not as bad as it could have been."
Green-on-blue attacks accounted for about 15 percent of the total U.S. casualties in 2012. They tapered off, but continued through the year and will likely continue in 2013, says Omar Lamrani, military analyst with Stratfor, a private intelligence organization.
The overall brunt of the casualties falls increasingly on Afghan forces as they begin to take on more responsibility for fighting.
"As [ISAF] gets away from the danger zone, we see [Afghan National Security Forces] stepping up," Lamrani says. "Going in to 2012, the big question is, can the ANSF hold it together?"
THE FUTURE OF ANSF
Some government watchdogs don't think so, and repeatedly doubt the Afghan's ability to provide for themselves without allied support. An October report from U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction stated security facilities in Afghanistan will likely not last after the allied planned drawdown in 2014.
Other reports point to waste among U.S. contractors and rampant corruption in the local government.
Of the roughly 180 Afghan Army Battalions, only a handful has ever been capable of operating independently. Some reports number those battalions as few as one. "It's almost inevitable that no Afghan unit could be in that top tier," says O'Hanlon. "ISAF does itself a big disservice by making this metric the most prominent one. It's actually not indicative of anything."
There is no Afghan air force to speak of, and coalition troops are still bolstering the Afghan military's ability to clear roads, among other logistics.
"It's much more informative in Iraq and Afghanistan to look at that second tier," he says. "If these units are doing most of what we're hoping they can do on their own, and doing it effectively and courageously and consistently, we'd be 90 percent of the way towards where we need to be in this business."
ISAF is on schedule to accomplish the remainder of its training efforts by 2014, O'Hanlon says. Training will continue through the roughly 10,000 troops the U.S. will likely leave in Afghanistan after the planned draw-down.
WHO WILL STAY?
The bulk of American troops remain in Regional Command East, or RC-E, in the eastern portion of the country surrounding Kabul. It witnessed 38 percent of the enemy-initiated attacks in 2012, according to ISAF. U.S. Troops are also predominantly in the Southern, Southwestern and Western commands. Roughly a third of the enemy attacks took place in RC-SW, ahead of the 21 percent in RC-S.
"RC-South and RC-Southwest have improved considerably," says Jeff Dressler, senior research analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. "RC-East is still a challenge."
"The key challenge for this year is how well Afghan forces will be able to carry the fight forward in the South and Southwest," he adds.
It remains unclear how low the number of U.S. forces will fall by the planned drawdown in 2014. Marine Gen. John Allen, the top allied commander, provided Defense Secretary Leon Panetta with three options: 6,000, 10,000, and 20,000 troops, according to The New York Times.
Experts tell U.S. News that middle number could provide the sweet spot the U.S. needs to demonstrate its troop withdrawal while still maintaining a force strong enough to prop up burgeoning Afghan security.
"Nobody is under the illusion ANSF will be completely independent and out on their own after 2014," says Dressler. "That was never the plan. That was never how things were conceived."
The residual force ought to be calculated based on certain key questions, he says, such as "What is the mission you're asking these forces to do and how many troops does it take to do it?" The White House and Pentagon should reevaluate the mission if the number of troops they deploy falls short of that requirement, Dressler says.
He predicts any significant drop in troop numbers will take place after the fighting season in the summer and early fall. Marine Gen. Joe Dunford will take command of ISAF in the coming weeks and will likely push for a continuation of troop levels.
"It would be unusual for a general to come in, be in control of a theater-level mission, and not have a say in the size and scope of the withdrawal he's going to have to carry out," says Dressler. "I don't see the rush, quite frankly. The Afghans still need a considerable amount of help, and we still have a considerable training mission underway."
Other experts believe political pressure might hasten lower troop levels much sooner.
Dunford and President Barack Obama will face stiff opposition from a Congress eager to bring combat troops home, says Bensahel.
"I suspect it will be a relatively steep drawdown through 2013, and see a force more like a post-drawdown 2014," she says.
PASSING THE TORCH
Allied forces started turning over security control of 87 percent of the country, according to an ISAF release on New Year's Eve. Allen congratulated Afghan President Hamid Karzai for accomplishing this, the fourth of five steps in the country's security transition.
"President Karzai's announcement of the fourth group of provinces to enter Transition is another historic step for Afghanistan as it gets closer to taking full responsibility for security of the entire country," Allen said in the Dec. 31 statement.
These five steps, or tranches, follow a process established at the Lisbon Summit in 2010 to turn over specific regions of the country to Afghan control. ISAF maintains these do not adhere to a specific timeline, but are based upon "operational, political, and economic considerations" from allied and Afghan assessments.
This transition began on March 22, 2011 for Kabul and two other regions in the eastern portion of the country. Karzai announced Tranche 2 in November 2011, followed by Tranche 3 in May 2012.
But this does not necessarily usher in an end to the fighting.
"If you forecast out...what you have to anticipate is an ongoing war," says O'Hanlon. "The idea that we've broken the back of the insurgency is unrealistic."