Afghan military and security forces have suffered heavy losses in recent weeks as they take the lead in all ground combat operations against insurgents, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Tuesday.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, attending a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers’ conference in Brussels, said Afghan government forces lost 104 personnel in one week during intense fighting with the Taliban.
“The Taliban came out, and they are doing exactly what they said they would do,” Dunford told reporters. “High-profile attacks, insider attacks against the Afghans and fear and intimidation.”
He praised the Afghan troops, saying their performance in battle “exceeds what we thought it would be a few months ago. … The challenges they’ve had against the Taliban, they’ve absolutely confronted those and not had an issue.”
Dunford said the Taliban’s “strength and their ability to operate … is less than what it has been in the past.” But he said Taliban fighters still launch cross-border attacks from neighboring Pakistan.
NATO’s commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, said in a separate briefing that “there is some very tough fighting going on right now — very tough fighting.”
NATO defense ministers, including Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel, are meeting here to discuss the drawdown of U.S. and other allied combat troops from Afghanistan over the next 18 months, and the military mission after that.
The alliance has broadly committed to providing 8,000 to 12,000 troops to the Afghan government for training and other support operations after 2014, but it’s not yet clear who will supply the troops. A cadre of U.S. special operations forces also will remain to target terrorists.
“First and foremost, the most important thing is to get clarity on what it is that NATO is going to do in 2015,” Dunford said.
Alliance ministers also agreed to shore up defenses against cyber attacks. The alliance’s cyber response center detected more than 2,500 digital intrusions from hackers last year.
“The real challenge is from high-end, targeted attacks, which for NATO, can number 10 or more a month,” said a NATO official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
The official said most of those attacks are traced to servers in China or Russia, and “can include emails with dangerous attachments, probes looking for vulnerabilities in NATO defenses, or denial of service attacks.”