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For the first time in five years insurgent-initiated attacks in Afghanistan have not increased with the start of a new fighting season, suggesting that a surge of U.S. forces has blunted Taliban momentum, according to the coalition forces.
The Taliban is "feeling the effects" of a surge strategy over the winter to drive militants out of former Taliban strongholds and hold the terrain, said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Colette Murphy, a spokeswoman for the coalition command in Kabul, though she cautioned that the Taliban is not defeated.
In May and June, insurgent attacks were down about 2 percent compared with the same period last year, says the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Since 2006, insurgent attacks grew by 20 percent or more each year, according to the data. The NATO command in Kabul released a summary of the statistics in response to a USA Today request.
Commanders credit a reinvigorated counterinsurgency strategy to protect towns and villages and relentless raids, which have devastated the Taliban's leadership, for the progress.
Militants are avoiding direct fights with coalition forces and have turned increasingly to roadside bombs, assassinations of local leaders and headline-grabbing terror attacks, according to ISAF.
This week, the insurgents killed the mayor of Kandahar and, on Thursday, two suicide bombers and militants armed with heavy weapons launched attacks on Afghan government offices in Tarin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan province, killing 19 people.
The number of high-profile attacks increased 27 percent between April and June of this year over the same time in 2010, ISAF says. And the use of improvised explosives has increased 19 percent. By contrast, the number of "complex attacks," in which small units of militants launch assaults directly on coalition or Afghan forces, declined 20 percent in the first half of this year over the same time last year.
"What we're seeing is an increase in asymmetric attacks," said Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. "They are realizing going toe-to-toe with the coalition very rarely is successful."
Military officials say they were closely watching the results of the opening of this year's fighting season as a test of Taliban strength and will.
"I think this fighting season's going to determine a lot, specifically in Helmand," Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, commander of Fleet Marine Force Atlantic, said recently. Helmand, a former insurgent stronghold in the south and poppy-growing region, was a major focus of the initial surge of forces.
The next phase of the coalition's campaign aims to secure the east, a mountainous region where militants have ties to groups across the border in Pakistan. The Pentagon has long complained that Pakistan should do more to place pressure on militants on its side of the border.
"We're probably at a very challenging time right now," Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said of U.S.-Pakistani relations.
Cross-border incidents have increased this year and Taliban militants in Afghanistan are receiving assistance from groups in Pakistan, the coalition headquarters said. Analysts say the coalition will need to maintain the momentum even as the U.S. begins reducing forces.
The White House has said it will draw down the U.S. force by 30,000 troops by the end of next September and all remaining forces by the end of 2014. Currently there are about 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Analysts say that if the Taliban is reduced to assassinating local leaders and killing civilians, they will alienate the population. If the coalition is not able to convince the population that it can prevail over the Taliban, though, it risks losing the momentum, Dressler said.
He said commanders will attempt to draw down forces in such a way as to maintain pressure on insurgents.