An officially reported downward trend in insurgent attacks that has underpinned President Obama’s decision to pull 34,000 troops from Afghanistan did not actually happen last year.
On Tuesday, the NATO command in the Afghan capital of Kabul acknowledged that a database error caused it to report a 7 percent decline in “enemy initiated attacks,” when the actual number remained the same compared to 2011.
The Pentagon highlighted the decline in the lead-up to Mr. Obama’s announcement in his State of the Union address this month that more than half of the 60,000-plus U.S. troops now in Afghanistan will return home by the end of this year.
The error means that, on a statistical basis, the war is not going as well as professed by the administration — and as most international combat troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
In December, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta cited a downturn in violence in Afghanistan during a speech at the National Press Club. He referred to a NATO summit in Chicago last May during which the alliance approved an Obama campaign plan to hand over more duties to local Afghan troops, paving the way for a foreign troop exit.
“If you look at the entire year, the level of violence is down,” Mr. Panetta told the press club audience. “It’s down by almost 60 percent in Kabul. It’s down by almost 50 percent to 60 percent in other populated areas where we’ve made the transition. The violence levels are down.”
Mr. Panetta spoke as the Pentagon’s latest quarterly progress report to Congress that month ballyhooed a significant decline in attacks.
The report could not compare the whole of 2012 to 2011 because the most recent data available were from September.
The progress report in December said enemy initiated attacks (EIAs) were up 1 percent from September 2011 to September 2012. That percentage, when reconciled with new correct numbers being produced by the command in Kabul, will very likely rise.
Between 2010, which marked the early stages of a troop surge to 100,000 U.S. troops, and September 2012, enemy initiated attacks declined by 12 percent, the Pentagon reported.
“EIAs are now disproportionately occurring outside of populated areas, and the security of many of Afghanistan’s largest cities increased substantially during the reporting period,” the quarterly briefing said.
More than 1,000 attacks by the Taliban, al Qaeda and other insurgents regularly occur in Afghanistan each month.
During the height of surge fighting in the summer of 2010, attacks reached 4,000 or more each month.
In September, there were about 2,600 enemy attacks, about the same number as in September 2011.
The NATO command defines an enemy initiated attack as direct fire, a surface-to-air missile or a detonated improvised explosive device. An IED that has been detected and cleared, or an attempted attack that fails is not counted.
At the Pentagon Tuesday, spokesman George Little called the under-reporting of insurgent attacks a “regrettable error in our database systems.”
“In spite of the stated adjustment, our assessment of the fundamentals of progress in Afghanistan remains positive,” Mr. Little said. “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.
“As we have said repeatedly, we have pushed the Taliban out of the population centers, and they have failed to retake any of the areas they lost during the surge, and this remains true,” he said.
The spokesman added: “There’s a tendency sometimes to fixate on one metric, whether it’s this particular database number or insider attacks or casualties. The complete picture of progress in Afghanistan is much more nuanced, and I would encourage you to look at that overall picture.”
The counting error was disclosed after The Associated Press inquired why the command had removed the monthly compilation of attacks from its website.
“During a quality control check, ISAF recently became aware that some data was incorrectly entered into the database that is used for tracking security-related incidents across Afghanistan,” Jamie Graybeal, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force, told the AP.
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