Tempered Optimism as Fighting Season Ends, 2014 Looms
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The New York Times reported on Tuesday that in a "pivotal year" where coalition forces handed over most operational responsibilities to Afghan security forces the Taliban's offensive was for the most part effectively thwarted. However, Afghan and U.S. officials were careful to moderate optimism about this year's gains, acknowledging the questions that remain unanswered ahead of 2014's spring elections and troop withdraw.

2013 saw the majority of national security and counterinsurgency operations managed by the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) for the first time. With the Taliban having promised a major offensive this fighting season, by many measures, Afghan and U.S. officials are happy with the performance of the ANSF.

The New York Times reported that territorial gains made by previous coalition offensives were not lost, most high-profile attacks in Kabul were foiled or subdued and the number of "insider attacks" was dramatically decreased from past years.

"This year was a bloody year and our enemies had planned to take over the big cities and block the main highways," said General Zahir Azimi, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense. "But Afghans led operations, and they were able to successfully prevent the enemy's attacks."

According to the New York Times, U.S. officials were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the Afghan forces during 2013 fighting season.

"What we saw this year was an insurgency unable to make a decisive blow against the ANSF," a Pentagon official told the Times. Nevertheless, the gains, or perhaps rather the fortitude, of the ANSF this year came at a high price.

Although officials disagree over the exact numbers, all concur that the Afghan forces saw a higher number of casualties in 2013 than ever before. The high casualty rate has both U.S. and Afghan officials worried about the sustainability of the ANSF's operations, particularly in a post-2014 Afghanistan, where coalition supporting resources will be unavailable.

"Why do our forces have high causalities despite fighting well?," asked Afghan military expert Gen. Atiqullah Amarkhil. "Firstly, we lack intelligence regarding the locations and numbers of the enemy, second, we don't have enough access to weapons, and finally, the leadership is not good. It is due to these things that our forces face such high causalities," he explained.

Those deficiencies, and the troubling questions they raise about security and stability in post-2014 Afghanistan, are why experts in Washington and Kabul have emphasized the importance of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would lock-down the details of continued U.S. training, logistical and advisory support for the Afghan forces once the bulk of coalition troops withdraw in December of 2014.

And while the spring-summer fighting season may be coming to a close, with many modestly celebrating the performance of the Afghan forces, questions still surround the viability of Kabul-centered governance being extended to the corners of the historically fragmented country. The New York Times reports that many areas of the south, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces particularly, sit solidly in the hands of insurgents. Moreover, Tuesday's assassination of Logar Governor Arsala Jamal, though the Taliban denied responsibility, serves as an example of how the relative law and order of the capital is not necessarily mirrored in outlying provinces.

The Taliban is reportedly looking to disrupt the spring elections more than they have with past votes, so the Afghan security forces may see only a brief respite during the winter months and the fighting season of 2014 start ahead of schedule. If that is the case, there will be both things to emulate and improve on after their first year at the helm of national security.

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