Insurgents remain a resilient threat in Afghanistan as the United States turns military control over to the Afghan military.
While attacks by the Taliban have declined, the Pentagon said the Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaida affiliates remain "resilient and determined" and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence.
"The insurgency's safe havens in Pakistan, the limited institutional capacity of the Afghan government, and endemic corruption remain the greatest risks to long-term stability and sustainable security in Afghanistan," the Pentagon said recently in a bi-annual report to Congress.
As of Sept. 20, the United States completed the drawdown of all 33,000 surge forces, which is consistent with the plan outlined by President Obama in 2011.
Approximately 68,000 U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan. The last foreign combat forces are to leave the country by the end of 2014 although NATO and International Security Assistance Force nations plan to support Afghanistan to 2017.
The handover process is being hindered by mistrust between Afghan and NATO forces, fueled by incidents involving U.S. soldiers, including the slaying of 16 villagers in Kandahar province and the inadvertent burning of Korans by U.S. soldiers at the Bagram air base, the Los Angeles Times said.
Insider attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. troops have soared this year. At least 116 NATO troops have been killed in insider attacks since 2007, including 51 this year, The Washington Post reported.
In highlighting the successes of 2012, the Pentagon said the NATO coalition and Afghan partners successfully blunted the insurgent summer offensive as security was transferred to Afghan forces, pushing violence out of the country's most populated regions. Enemy attacks are now disproportionately occurring outside of populated areas, and the security of many of Afghanistan's largest cities increased substantially during the reporting period, the report said.
As of September, roughly 76 percent of Afghans are living in areas where Afghan forces have started assuming the lead for security.
The United Nations in November approved a resolution pledging to support Afghanistan as it sought to rebuild a stable, secure and economically self-sufficient state, with particular emphasis on improving the operational capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces.
"The U.S. remains committed to the long-term security and stability of Afghanistan," the Pentagon said earlier this month in its report to Congress.
Insurgent attacks were up about 1 percent from April through September, mainly due to a shortened poppy harvesting season. Officials say many low-level insurgents are involved in poppy harvesting.
The Los Angeles Times said Afghan officers and soldiers are enthusiastic about taking over control for their country's security but many say they need more weapons and equipment for their battle against the Taliban.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have started a public relations campaign aimed at softening their image. Afghan officials met with Taliban envoys in Paris shortly before Christmas. Officials close to the talks said the Taliban's senior leadership has made conciliatory statements hinting at the possible willingness to operate as a mainstream political faction once NATO's combat mission ends in 2014.
The New York Times, however, said the softening stance may be related to a feud at the group's top levels.
Britain said it will withdraw at least 4,000 troops from Afghanistan next year, slashing the number of troops based in three districts of Helmand province by nearly half. While British troops should be done leading combat operations by the end of 2013, special forces units will continue to work with Afghan counterparts, The Guardian newspaper reported.
"Frankly the Afghan army is doing better than we expected, there's more of them than we expected and that's why we are able to bring home so many troops," British Prime Minister David said during a recent visit to Afghanistan.
Slightly more than 5,000 British troops will remain in the country in 2014.
While the Taliban has tried to claim the insider attacks are part of their strategy, the Washington Post said data disclosed by the U.S. military suggests 38 percent of insider attacks from May 2007 to September 2012 were likely triggered by personal motives, 6 percent were cases of enemy infiltration and 14 percent were cases in which insurgents persuaded a member of the Afghan security forces to help carry out an attack.
As the United States relinquishes control of the security situation in Afghanistan, missed opportunities from war in Iraq hold stark lessons.
While the Obama administration terms the withdrawal from Iraq a success, the country remains mired in the same ethnic and sectarian conflicts it faced at the end of 2011 when the last U.S. troops went home.
The New York Times said the administration has fallen short on its goal to leave behind a stable democracy that can't be exploited by terrorists and neighboring governments.
In Iraq, the start of 2012 was marred by sectarian bombings that killed at least 72 people, including 48 Shiite pilgrims who died in a suicide attack. As the year comes to an end, the country faces a military stand-off between Iraqi Kurds and Sunni Arabs linked to oil and land rights between the Iraqi federal government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.
The Times said the civil war in neighboring Syria is testing Iraq's fledgling democracy and worsening sectarian tensions. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is fearful Iraq's insurgents will join forces with Syrian extremists, the newspaper said.
Turkey is also a sore point for Iraq as Turkish warplanes attack Kurdish insurgents in the north, infringing on Iraq's airspace.
The war in Syria has pushed Iraq closer to Iran, much to the consternation of U.S. officials. Maliki's Shiite government shares a similar interest with Iran in keeping Syrian President Bashar Assad in power. Iran is using Iraqi airspace as a corridor to send military supplies to Assad, the Times said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon raised concerns in December about political divisions in Iraq, calling the ongoing political stalemate a "disservice to the people of Iraq, who look to their leaders to deliver a better future."
"Above all, I worry that increased political polarization could stoke sectarian violence and reverse the precious security gains against terrorism in recent years," Ban said.
MICHELLE GROENKE || United Press International