The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan incorrectly reported a decline in Taliban attacks last year, and officials said Tuesday that there was actually no change in the number of attacks on international troops from 2011 to 2012.
The corrected numbers — from the original reports of a 7 percent decline to one of no change — could undercut the narrative promoted by the international coalition and the Obama administration of an insurgency in steep decline.
A coalition spokesman, Jamie Graybeal, attributed the miscounting to clerical errors and said the problem does not change officials' basic assessment of the war.
The 7 percent figure had been included in a report posted on the coalition's website in late January as part of its monthly update on trends in security and violence. It was removed from the website recently without explanation. After The Associated Press asked last week about the missing report, coalition officials said they were correcting the data and would re-publish the report in coming days.
U.S. and allied officials have often cited declining violence as a sign that the Taliban has been degraded and that Afghan forces are in position to take the lead security role when the last U.S. combat troops leave Dec. 31, 2014.
In mid-December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said "violence is down," in 2012, and that Afghan forces "have gotten much better at providing security" in areas where they have taken the lead role. He said the Taliban can be expected to continue to attack, "but overall they are losing."
On Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman George Little said Panetta was "concerned to learn of the errors" and was only very recently briefed on the matter.
"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.
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 last two fighting seasons. Even so, they are resilient, and 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.
Graybeal did not fully explain ISAF's erroneous reporting of 2012 Taliban attacks. It was not clear, for example, at what point the data errors began or who discovered them.
"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," Graybeal said from Kabul, speaking for the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.
Graybeal said an audit determined that portions of the data from unilateral Afghan military operations were "not properly reflected" in the trends ISAF had reported in its monthly updates.
"After including this unilateral ANSF (Afghan National Security Force) data into our database, we have determined that there was no change in the total number of EIAs (enemy initiated attacks) from 2011 to 2012," Graybeal said.
"This was a record-keeping error that we recognized and have now corrected," he added.
The coalition defines enemy initiated attacks as attacks by small arms, mortars, rockets and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. But it does not include IEDs that are found and cleared before they explode.
Trends in Taliban attacks are one yardstick used by ISAF to measure war progress. Others include the state of security in populated areas, the number of coalition and Afghan casualties, the degree to which civilians can move about freely, and the performance of Afghan security forces.
Graybeal said that even though the number of 2012 Taliban attacks was unchanged from 2011, "our assessment of the fundamentals of campaign progress has not changed. The enemy is increasingly separated from the population and the ANSF are currently in the lead for the vast majority of partnered operations."