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US-led coalition says insurgent attacks trending downward in Afghanistan
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) ' International forces in Afghanistan released new data Thursday showing violence trending downward in their favor, only a day after the U.N. reported considerably more clashes and other attacks per month than last year.
The quick scheduling of the news conference to unveil the statistics underscored NATO's sensitivity about how the war is perceived back home as the U.S. and other nations start to withdraw some forces with an eye toward pulling all combat troops out by the end of 2014.
The new statistics show that insurgent attacks in the first eight months of the year were down 2 percent compared with the same period last year.
The U.N. report, by contrast, found that the monthly average number of clashes and other attacks was running nearly 40 percent higher than last year. The U.N. study measured not only Taliban attacks but also assaults by NATO and Afghan forces on insurgents; it did not provide a breakdown between the two.
The coalition cited methodological differences between the two surveys: The U.N. report counted a wide range of security incidents that the NATO report did not, including arrests and seizures of weapons caches.
Nevertheless, both sets of figures confirm that Taliban fighters continue to display resilience despite U.S. claims of advances against the insurgents in their southern strongholds.
The militants have opened new fronts in the north and west and have stepped up attacks in the east, including high-profile suicide bombings inside the heavily secured capital, Kabul.
That resilience renews questions about whether the Afghan government and its Western allies have a solid grip on security, and whether the Afghan forces can ever secure the nation by themselves.
In a briefing at NATO headquarters in Kabul, the coalition said the Taliban were relying more on roadside bombs to fight the war instead of shooting at better-armed international troops. Roadside bomb activity, which includes both explosions and attempted bombings, rose 25 percent in the eight-month period compared with last year.
Direct-fire attacks from insurgents fell by 30 percent in June through August compared to the same period last year.
"The actual enemy-initiated attacks are down," said German Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a spokesman for the coalition. "That is what we are observing as an indicator that actually violence trends are going down in our favor."
The coalition defines "enemy-initiated attacks" as all militant actions, such as direct and indirect fire, shooting at aircraft from the ground, roadside bombings and mine strikes. Potential or attempted attacks by militants are not included in this figure.
Since May of this year, the monthly number of these attacks has been lower than the same month in 2010, something not seen since 2007, the coalition said. Moreover, the coalition said that in 17 of the past 22 weeks, these attacks were lower than the same week of last year.
"The important thing is that we are looking at a decrease overall in comparison to last year ... with a higher number of troops" in the country, Jacobson said.
Coalition officials at the briefing said the international force expected a 17 percent to 30 percent increase in insurgent-initiated attacks this year partly because of the 10,000 to 25,000 additional coalition forces and 60,000 more Afghan security forces compared with 2010.
In the first eight months of the year, 405 international troops were killed in Afghanistan ' 16 percent fewer than the 483 who died in the same period last year, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
Jacobson said the coalition and the U.N. need to put their reports side-by-side to find out how the data is being compiled.
"This doesn't mean there is controversy or there is a conflict," he said. "It just means that we are looking at certain incidents from a certain angle and different perspective."
Staffan de Mistura, the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, also insisted there was no conflict between the different assessments.
He told reporters after a U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday that the situation in Afghanistan had improved "in a purely military way," but at the same time there has been an increase in civilian casualties.
In a midyear report, the U.N. said 1,462 Afghan civilians lost their lives in the crossfire of the battle between Taliban insurgents and Afghan, U.S. and NATO forces. During the first half of last year, 1,271 Afghan civilians were killed, mostly by roadside bombs.
That U.N. report said airstrikes conducted by the U.S.-led coalition remained the leading cause of civilian deaths by pro-government forces. In the first six months of the year, 79 civilian deaths were attributed to air strikes ' up 14 percent from the same period last year, the U.N. report said.
Tracking a slightly longer period, the coalition said 67 Afghan civilians were killed in airstrikes between January and August ' up 18 percent from the 57 killed in the same months of 2010. The coalition said more than 80 percent of all civilian casualties are caused by insurgents, the majority by roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices, planted by militants.
"IED attacks this year are up and we believe this is one indicator that signals a change in tactics in the insurgency," said Lt. Col. Bret Van Poppel, who briefed reporters on the statistics.
"The increased reliance on IEDs, we believe, reflects the insurgents desire to avoid direct engagement with coalition and Afghan security forces," he said.