As senior congressional Democrats call for a faster troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, the rate of successful enemy attacks on NATO troops is lower than previous winters, according to NATO data.
But some say the numbers can't be taken at face value, or used to convincingly show that, as Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said last week, "significant progress" has recently been made in the war-torn country.
According to the report, attacks launched by Taliban and other anti-NATO forces from November to January are down from the same period in late 2010 and early 2011 by nearly 20 percent.
"This is the longest sustained downward trend in enemy-initiated attacks recorded by [NATO]," according to alliance briefing slides reviewed by DOTMIL.
Clashes with Taliban forces have traditionally waned during the brutal Afghanistan winters. However, the months bridging 2010 and 2011 featured heavy fighting. For instance, there were over 2,500 enemy-launched attacks in November 2010 alone and around 2,000 in January 2011.
The report also says that the attack rate has been falling since May, with September showing the most decline, a decrease of nearly 1,500 attacks from the 3,000 strikes anti-NATO fighters launched in September 2010.
The biggest drop off in the location of executed attacks has occurred is in southwest Afghanistan, where Taliban attacks on NATO troops have dropped by 33 percent since last February. Eastern Afghanistan, the most populated section of the country, saw a 34 percent drop in attacks this past January when compared to the same month in 2011. Attacks in October and November of 2011 were up when compared to the same months in 2010.
In the area around Kabul, there have been few enemy attacks over the amount of time measured in the report. The February killings of U.S. service members at an Afghanistan ministry were not included in the data.
Despite the data showing waning Taliban attacks, Joshua Foust, a fellow at the American Security Project and an expert on the Afghan war, is skeptical that the report signals a postive outlook on the conflict's progress.
"Accepting the current numbers at face value still doesn't mean much, though, because the overall level of violence never mattered," says Foust. "The January 2012 violence level is still higher than the worst month of 2008, for example."
"I've had to learn not to trust the stats because [NATO officials] are not shy about manipulating the stats to say whatever they want them to," says Foust. "In 2009, 2010 and 2011, NATO tried playing with numbers to say things are better, only to be forced to admit the country was far more violent."
The NATO numbers include only executed attacks -- not ones that were thwarted or simply failed.
And the NATO briefing notes the decline in attacks in eastern Afghanistan was due to "'extreme winter weather conditions,' not anything NATO did," Foust says.
While the number of executed enemy attacks were down, the rate remains much higher than in the winter of 2008. There were around 1,000 attacks that November and around 600 two months later. During this past November, there were nearly 2,500 Taliban-initiated attacks, followed by 1,500 in January.
The NATO briefing also touts that improvised explosive device attacks were down 30 percent this past January when compared to the number of IED attacks in January 2011. But the number for November and December held nearly steady with the number of attacks in 2010. Those makeshift bomb strike figures are significantly higher than in 2008 and 2009, according to the data.
NATO only includes IEDs that actually exploded.
"So all of the bombs they discovered and defused, or which did not go off, were not included in their IED attack statistics," Foust says.
The enemy attack figures are unlikely to change many minds in Washington about how the U.S. should shape its Afghanistan war policy and withdrawal plans. Last week, senior Democratic officials on the House and Senate Armed Services Committee endorsed getting all American troops out faster than the Obama administration is currently calling for.
"At a point, the presence of 100,000 soldiers of another nation...is destabilizing," Washington Rep. Adam Smith told reporters Thursday. "That has to grate on the Afghans. We must end that as soon as we can."
Michigan Sen. Carl Levin said Tuesday that administration officials and lawmakers will have to re-think the White House's plan for keeping tens of thousands of American forces in Afghanistan well into 2014.
"There is a general concern...about recent events and how they affect the draw-down plan," Levin told reporters. "The American people are generally concerned," he said, adding "they instinctively want a faster draw-down."
Both lawmakers' comments came in response to questions about how a recent U.S.-Afghan flap that left American soldiers dead should alter Washington's plans.
The Pentagon confirmed Thursday that two Afghans--one a soldier and one a civilian--shot and killed two U.S. military members. That brought the number of American troops killed by Afghans to five since tensions reached a new high in late February after American troops U.S. troops burned copies of the Koran and other holy Muslim texts by mistake.
That incident, and the subsequent killings and protests, have conjured fresh doubts about the decade-old mission.
"U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is melting down so fast," says Loren Thompson, a Pentagon analyst at the Lexington Institute. "The timetable for turning over responsibilities" to Afghan officials and security forces "seems to be accelerating."
Things have deteriorated so rapidly that Thompson says there are questions about "whether the [Hamid] Karzai government will even be in power once America departs."