WASHINGTON -- As the U.S. war in Afghanistan enters its second decade, a new Pentagon assessment acknowledged that the Taliban insurgency remains "resilient" and able to mount spectacular attacks and assassinations even in the heavily fortified capital city of Kabul.
A senior defense official insisted that President Obama's plan to withdraw all 33,000 "surge" troops deployed last year by the end of 2012 is "on track."
"We are succeeding," said the official, who cannot be identified under Pentagon ground rules. "We're going to advance our goals [and] draw down as we've said."
But the official, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon Friday, acknowledged that "the whole effort remains risky.'' Asked to be more specific, he replied: "We see risk everywhere."
For instance, a key U.S. objective has been to protect ordinary Afghan civilians from the Taliban. To that end, the U.S. and its allies have poured $29 billion and years of effort into building the Afghan army and police forces. Under the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy, American troops have pursued the same goal by walking foot patrols in villages, meeting with village elders and trying to foster cooperation on development projects.
But Afghan civilians are dying in record numbers, according to the report. Civilian casualties -- most caused by the Taliban -- reached an all-time high this summer with approximately 450 civilians killed in July. Attacks using homemade bombs, or IEDs, also reached an all-time high this past summer, with about 750 IED detonations recorded in July.
The numbers reflect what Pentagon officials say has been a shift in Taliban tactics. With some 97,000 U.S. troops deployed around the country, the insurgents are shunning large armed confrontations with American and Afghan troops. Instead they are setting up more IED ambushes, mounting sporadic but high-profile attacks such as the attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul in September, and on high-level assassinations, such as the killing in September of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Despite the massive effort to recruit, train equip and deploy competent Afghan security forces, the new Pentagon report said that none of the 218 major Afghan National Police units were able to operate independently. Of 204 Afghan army battalions, one one was rated able to operate on its own.
Senior U.S. military officers have said in the past that high civilian casualties erode Afghans' confidence in the ability of their government -- and American forces -- to protect them. In interviews, many Afghans have said they refuse to cooperate with U.S. troops by alerting them to the presence of Taliban fighters or arms caches because they fear Taliban retaliation. The high numbers of civilian casualties underscore that point.
"The change in Taliban tactics has kept up the number of civilian casualties," said the senior defense official. Even though there are fewer Taliban attacks overall, he said, the Taliban "are killing more Afghan civilians."
Among other risk factors detailed by the report are "widespread" Afghan corruption, which the United States has been unable to control, and the inability of the government in Kabul or the provinces to effectively govern.
The new Pentagon assessment came as a new poll showed that U.S. public support for the war has sunk to its lowest point. Only 34 percent of respondents said they were in favor of the war, while 63% of respondents opposed it.
The new Pentagon report is the latest in a series of semi-annual reports mandated by Congress since 2008. In contrast to past reports, this one does not use the phrase "fragile and reversible" to characterize progress in the war. That, said the senior official, was a deliberate effort to suggest that U.S. initiatives in Afghanistan, including the clearing out of Afghan safe havens, seizing of Taliban arms caches and disruption of their supply lines to Pakistan, are having a permanent effect.
Although the new Pentagon report is more upbeat, it reflects the generally dismal security trends detailed in independent assessments of the programs in the war.
A report by the International Crisis Group, for instance, examined security incidents around the country as well as progress in building Afghan security forces and governmental capacity. The report concluded that the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan is failing.
"Time is running out before the international community transfers control to Kabul by the end of 2014, and many key objectives are unlikely to be achieved by then," the report said.
The international coalition of nations that have contributed forces to Afghanistan agreed last year to a plan to transfer all security responsibilities to Afghanistan by the end of 2014. That would mark the withdrawal of almost all foreign forces, according to the agreement.
President Obama, in a speech last June, laid out a plan to withdraw 5,000 forces immediately, an additional 5,000 by the end of this year, and the remainder of the "surge" of 33,000 troops by the end of next year.
That would leave approximately 55,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through 2013.