WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Afghan security forces fell sharply during 2014, thanks partly to desertions and casualties, according to newly declassified U.S. military data released on Tuesday that could add to the debate over planned U.S. troop withdrawals.
The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan hinges on the ability of Afghan forces to secure the country despite a still-resilient Taliban insurgency and increasingly limited support from the shrinking foreign forces supporting them.
President Barack Obama’s administration, which is under pressure from Kabul and Congress to slow the withdrawal, again signalled on Tuesday it was open to adjusting plans to cut U.S. forces by nearly half this year.
“A plan is something you adjust over time. And so I think we can adjust our plan over the next year or two,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a Senate hearing.
The Afghan national army’s (ANA) total numbers fell to 169,203, down 15,636 or 8.5 percent, between February and November last year, a U.S. government watchdog reported in data confirmed by the U.S. military.
“This is the lowest assigned ANA force strength since August 2011,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report, noting the ANA levels include Afghan air force personnel.
The U.S.-led coalition told Reuters the total crept back up to 173,000 uniformed personnel in January, but acknowledged that Afghan commanders last year “did not set recruiting goals at levels sufficient to outpace attrition rates.”
Afghanistan’s national army and police suffered heavy losses in 2014, the bloodiest since the war against Taliban militants began in 2001. The forces also suffered desertions.
Republicans in Congress say hard-won gains could be lost in much the same way sectarian violence returned to Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal.
Carter, who just returned from a trip to Afghanistan, said he firmly believed the U.S. withdrawal strategy should be informed by events on the ground. He did not venture a guess about what Obama might decide.
Obama is due to host Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in the United States later in March.
“I don’t know what decisions the president will make in that regard or the timetable on which he’ll make them,” Carter added.
Reporting by Phil Stewart. Editing by Andre Grenon