Despite a sharp increase in assassinations and a continuing flood of civilian casualties, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) officials said on Saturday (October 15) that they had reversed the momentum of the Taliban insurgency as enemy attacks were falling for the first time in years.

It was the most optimistic assessment yet from senior NATO officials, and runs counter to dimmer appraisals from some Afghan officials and other international agencies, including the United Nations. With the United States preparing to withdraw 10,000 troops by the end of this year and 23,000 more by next October, it raises questions about whether NATO's claims of success can be sustained.

Coalition officials have previously used terms like “halted” and “arrested” to describe the shift of Taliban influence following the American troop build-up. In March, the senior NATO commander at the time, Gen. David H. Petraeus, said Taliban gains had been “halted in much of the country and reversed in some important areas.”

On Saturday, a senior coalition official said, “This is all about momentum.”

“Before we had arrested it, which means to that point, they weren't making that forward progress,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “What we're seeing now is a reversal, which is, they're regressing at this point.”

Militant attacks were down 26 per cent in the quarter ending in September over that quarter last year, the official said. The decrease bought the overall level of attacks for the first nine months of this year down eight per cent from the same time period last year, when enemy attacks peaked, according to NATO figures. Enemy attacks include direct and indirect fire, like mortar attacks, as well as roadside bomb strikes.

The number of attacks remains sharply higher than in 2009 when the troop increase began. But after more than five years of rising insurgent activity, enemy attacks began showing a downward trend for the first time in May that continued through the heart of the summer fighting season, NATO data shows.

The coalition's numbers clash with other assessments, including those of the U.N., which reported last month that the average number of monthly episodes through August was up 39 per cent compared with the same period last year.

NATO officials said they stood behind their data, which does not include some categories of violence used by the U.N., and said their gathering and analysis techniques had stayed consistent.

A shift in tactics?

Assassins have claimed 131 victims this year through September, a 61 per cent increase from the same period last year, NATO officials said. The intensified assassination campaign and the increased use of roadside bombs have led some Western officials to suggest that the Taliban may not have been as weakened as coalition officials suggest but have shifted tactics while waiting for the coalition to withdraw most of its troops by the end of 2014.

NATO officials track assassinations but do not include them in their enemy activity numbers, in part because many may not be insurgent-related. For example, NATO classifies the assassination of President Hamid Karzai's half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, in July, as the act of a distraught underling, not of the Taliban.

On Saturday, the senior coalition official, in one of the most detailed accounts yet of the motives behind that murder, said the killer was a guard commander afraid of being disciplined and disgraced by Mr. Karzai for mistreating civilians at checkpoints.

“If someone can give us a credible alternative, we'll change that category,” the official said.

Brig. Gen. Carsten Jacobson, a NATO spokesman, said the exclusion of assassinations in the enemy activity data helped explain some of the discrepancies between NATO and U.N. data. The U.N. also includes the discovery of weapons caches, arrests, intimidation and other categories that NATO does not include, he said. “We do track the majority of these events but do not combine them into the security incidents category,” he said last month. And despite NATO data showing a decrease in enemy attacks, civilian casualties, the vast majority of them caused by insurgents, continue to rise, at least by the U.N.'s account. ( Jack Healy contributed reporting from the Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, and Sharifullah Sahak from Kabul. ) — New York Times News Service