Deaths among Afghan troops more than doubled during the last fighting season, a top U.S. general says, as the U.S. continues to pry itself from a 13-year-old war and turn responsibility over to fledgling local forces.
"Afghan security forces suffered significantly more casualties this summer," said Lt. Gen. Mark Milley, the commander of International Security Assistance Force Joint Command. The average deaths per unit increased between 50 and 70 percent since 2012, he said from Afghanistan in a video conference with reporters at the Pentagon.
The Afghan military has been able to quell the Taliban's ability to conduct large-scale military operations, he added, relegating the insurgent force to "high-profile, spectacular attacks," such as the deadly bombing last week at an Afghan restaurant. Milley expects these attacks will increase in frequency.
"The enemy tactic is … to instill fear, like terrorists do elsewhere," he said. "The whole purpose is to create the perception, an atmosphere of fear."
Twenty-one people died, including two Americans, in a Taliban bombing Jan. 17 at a Kabul restaurant frequented by high-ranking foreign officials. The attack is considered the deadliest of its kind during this war.
"I would expect additional attacks like that. They've been doing it all summer," Milley said, adding that the Taliban's strategy is to kill, maim and murder, and to delegitimize the government.
Such attacks weigh heavy on the minds of U.S. military planners and their allied counterparts, who are still waiting on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to approve a deal that would allow coalition troops to remain after 2014. Barring such an agreement, the U.S. and NATO may be forced to enact the "zero option" of withdrawing all personnel, as they did in Iraq in 2011.
The Wall Street Journal reports President Barack Obama is considering a plan proposed by the Pentagon that would leave only 10,000 troops in Afghanistan after this year, withdrawing almost all of them by the end of Obama's term in 2017.
Milley declined to answer specifically how Afghan security forces would fare without allied support. He said they have at least a 95-percent success rate in skirmishes against Taliban foes, most of which do not require direct U.S. assistance.
"At no time did Afghan security forces during this past summer lose any urban area, any population center," he said. "Not a single district was overrun."
Tactically, Afghan troops are proficient, he said, while adding that "tactics does not an Army make."
"They have to be more than that, they have to be more than tactics," Milley said.
Milley went on to document a laundry list of capabilities the U.S. has not yet been able to instill in Afghan forces, which he says began at "zero" at the war's beginning in 2001. Afghanistan has to create institutional systems to replenish its forces, budget for military operations, manage personnel, develop intelligence, and analyze it. The country also must train pilots for rotor- and fixed-wing operations and sustain logistical activities, such as getting spare parts for vehicles and equipment and distributing them.
The Afghan military additionally requires improvements to its medical system, which Milley believes the U.S. will be able to "shore up" before the end of 2014.
Many capabilities listed by Milley would require years to instill, and the Afghans would lose them if the U.S. withdrew this year.