WASHINGTON - The American-led military coalition in Afghanistan backed off Tuesday from its claim that Taliban attacks dropped off in 2012, tacitly acknowledging a hole in its widely repeated argument that violence is easing and that the insurgency is in steep decline.
In response to Associated Press inquiries about its latest series of statistics on security in Afghanistan, the coalition command in Kabul said it had erred in reporting a 7 percent decline in attacks. In fact there was no decline at all, officials said.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is among the senior officials who had publicly repeated the assertion of an encouraging drop-off in Taliban attacks last year, was disturbed to learn of the error, said his spokesman, George Little.
"This particular set of metrics doesn't tell the full story of progress against the Taliban, of course, but it's unhelpful to have inaccurate information in our systems," Little said.
A coalition spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, attributed the miscounting to clerical errors and said the problem does not change officials' basic assessment of the war, which they say is on a positive track as American and allied forces withdraw.
The 7 percent figure had been included in a report posted on the website of the coalition, the International Security Assistance Force, on Jan. 22 as part of its monthly update on trends in security and violence. It was removed from the website recently without explanation. After the AP asked last week about the missing report, coalition officials said they were correcting the data and would republish the report. As of Tuesday afternoon, it had not reappeared.
It was not clear whether or how the Pentagon might correct a separate report - its semiannual report to Congress on security progress in Afghanistan, which used some of the same Taliban-attack statistics. The report was sent to Congress in December.
"We'll look at any adjustments that need to be made" to that report, Little said.
U.S. and allied officials have often cited declining violence as a sign that the Taliban have been degraded and that Afghan forces are in position to take the lead security role across the country when the last U.S. combat troops leave on Dec. 31, 2014.
In mid-December, Panetta said "violence is down" for 2012 and Afghan forces "have gotten much better at providing security" in areas where they have taken the lead. He said the Taliban could be expected to continue to attack, "but overall they are losing."
Little said Panetta was briefed only "very recently" on the erroneous data.
U.S. and alliance officials try to measure progress against the Taliban from a variety of angles. Those include, for example, indications that the Taliban have lost much of their influence in population centers.
"The fact that 80 percent of the violence has been taking place in areas where less than 20 percent of the Afghan population lives remains unchanged," Little said.
The Taliban have lost a good deal of territory since a 2010 surge of U.S. forces in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, and they failed to recover it during the past two fighting seasons. Even so, they are expected to severely test Afghan forces as the U.S. and its coalition partners step further into the background this year and complete their combat mission next year.
US Toll in Afghanistan
Source: Department of Defense