WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Afghan security forces have demonstrated resilience in heavy fighting with the Taliban this year, but suffered high casualties and must continue to improve to achieve more than a stalemate this fighting season, the Pentagon said in report released on Tuesday.
The 108-page Defense Department report to Congress stressed the importance of Afghan security forces demonstrating their effectiveness against the Taliban in their first full year with overall responsibility for the country's security.
The twice-yearly document was the first issued since U.S. and coalition forces ended their combat mission in Afghanistan and handed over responsibility for internal security to Afghan police and military forces. Coalition troops now are mainly in a train, advise and assist role.
Afghan forces "conducted several large-scale independent operations around the country simultaneously during this reporting period, but their performance was uneven," the report said.
While not fully independent, Afghan troops nonetheless "continued to demonstrate that they are capable and can undertake relatively sophisticated operations with minimal coalition advice and assistance," it said.
Afghan forces carried out offensive operations to take the fight to the insurgency in Helmand, Ghazni and Zabul provinces, but they also "struggled to react quickly" to Taliban offensives in Kunar and Kunduz provinces, it said.
Many Afghan security checkpoints were overrun temporarily by the insurgents, but in most cases the security forces retook them quickly, it said.
Afghan security forces demonstrated "resilience in the face of heavy fighting and generally have performed well, but have suffered high attrition and casualties," the report said.
Leadership factors played a role in their effectiveness, the report said. Delays as a result of last year's disputed Afghan presidential elections meant key leaders were not in place this year. For example, the fighting season began without a new Afghan defense minister.
President Ashraf Ghani also ordered the retirement of 47 general officers who were beyond mandatory retirement age and suspended several others involved in a fuel procurement scandal.
"Although generally positive in intent, these actions also caused some disruption in areas where replacements were not readily named," the report said.
Perception of Afghan security forces performance could have an important impact this year, the report said.
"By demonstrating their capabilities, the (Afghans) will reduce the operating space for insurgents and may incentivize their participation in the reconciliation process," it said.
But Afghan troops "will need to demonstrate resiliency and steady improvement to achieve more than a stalemate against the insurgency in the year ahead," it said.
Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Richard Chang