WASHINGTON, July 14, 2015 - Although the fighting season in Afghanistan has been tough this year, with Afghan forces taking 60 percent more casualties than they did last year, progress has continued there, the undersecretary of defense for policy said here Monday.
Christine E. Wormuth, speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies military strategy forum, said Afghan forces are coping in a very difficult environment and that the Taliban "does not pose an existential threat to the Afghan government."
The Taliban are testing Afghan security forces as the coalition draws down, she said. The Taliban's strategy is to launch high-profile attacks that are "aimed at harming innocent civilians and trying to undermine the credibility of the government in Kabul," she added. But the Taliban are not the only threat, Wormuth said. The Afghan government also must contend with al-Qaida, the Haqqani network and other extremist groups, including a branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Afghan forces are absorbing the blows in the fighting season, she said. "Those casualty rates are up ... because the Afghan security forces are actually increasing their operational tempo -- they are doing more, they are taking the fight to the enemy," the undersecretary said.
"A few of the commanders I talked to out there said the whole concept of a fighting season may not really have the same meaning it used to," Wormuth noted. "The periods of fighting are not constrained to a point on the calendar as they once were."
Many of the casualties come from Taliban attacks on remote outposts, she said, and coalition forces are working with Afghans to protect these vulnerable positions. "We've actually seen when the Afghans go on the offensive ... against the Taliban, they have much lower casualty rates," Wormuth said. Coalition advisors also are working with Afghan planners in planning these more complex operations.
But if Afghan security forces casualties have gone up, so have the casualty rates for the Taliban, she noted. "They are taking more hits than last year, they have not been able to achieve their strategic and operational goals, and while they are claiming they are fighting foreigners in Afghanistan, this claim is really starting to ring hollow as the Afghan security forces themselves are doing more and taking the responsibility for defense and the coalition footprint gets smaller," the undersecretary said.
Pakistan has helped to maintain the pressure on the Taliban by launching operations against the group on its side of the border, Wormuth said. "This is causing the Taliban to not have the same sense of security and the same sanctuaries it once had," she added.
Wormuth said President Barack Obama's time-phased approach to withdrawal from Afghanistan is helping the process. Under the approach, she explained, the United States -- which now maintains about 9,800 troops in the country -- will draw down until there is a "normalized embassy footprint" by the end of next year.
"By putting out that time-phased approach and putting out timelines, we are focusing the security forces on what they need to do, and I think that has resulted in a lot of progress in the last year," Wormuth said. "And it has given us a roadmap to what we have to do in the year and a half we have left."
Still, she said, the timeline will be driven by events on the ground. She noted that the president decided to keep the current level of troops in Afghanistan through 2015. All along the way, U.S. commanders and advisors will assess the situation and make recommendations up the chain, Wormuth said.
In the meantime, the undersecretary said, U.S. and coalition trainers and advisors will continue to work with Afghan forces at the corps level, with Afghan special operations forces and the Afghan special mission wing.
"I was very impressed with the dedication, the enthusiasm and the professionalism of the Afghan soldiers I saw, even in the face of these high casualty rates," she said. "They are very focused on a committed to the missions they have."
Wormuth said she has high hopes for a joint counterterrorism strategy with the Afghan government that goes well beyond the 2016 end date for the advise-and-assist mission. Negotiations are underway.