Insurgent attacks are down in some heavily populated areas of Afghanistan where U.S.-led coalition troops have been concentrated, but violence continues in rural areas, an outgoing American commander said Monday.
U.S. Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, who directed day-to-day operations in the war, spoke briefly to reporters just before he officially ended his job as commander of the U.S.-led coalition's Joint Command and deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
"The violence has gone down where we've focused our efforts," he said standing on the tarmac at a Kabul military airport just before he boarded a plane bound for Europe. "You have to watch it very carefully because the violence is now outside instead of inside the populated areas. It takes a lot work to really understand the nuances of what's happening."
Over the weekend, Gen. David Petraeus, the outgoing commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said insurgent attacks in May and June were down slightly from the same months last year. Petraeus, who is retiring from the military to become the next CIA director, said it appeared the downward trend would continue through July.
The Taliban issued a statement Monday rejecting this claim.
"This is a baseless statement and there is no reality in it," the insurgent group said in an e-mail responding to Petraeus' comments. The group said they have not decreased attacks and called Petraeus' comments "propaganda."
Rodriguez maintained that fighting was down.
"The violence has been down for a little while and it's not in the densely packed areas, but outside more often than not," Rodriguez said.
"But, look, these things go up and down and we're going to have to sustain that with our partners."
Rodriguez, a native of West Chester, Pennsylvania, previously served as the military assistant to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Before that, he was commander of the 82nd Airborne Division and the regional commander for operations in eastern Afghanistan.
Rodriguez handed over his responsibilities to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti at a ceremony attended by top military and Afghan officials, then left for Europe to visit with NATO partners in Poland, Germany, Italy and France.
Rodriguez also said that there has been progress in building up the Afghan national security forces.
"Afghan forces are stepping up more and more," he said. "I know they're going to do that. It will be uneven, but we want that to keep moving forward as fast as we can."
Rodriguez, who has spent more than 40 months in Afghanistan over the past 4 1/2 years, said he believes that President Barack Obama's pullout plan for this year and 2012 can be carried out without undue risk to the military's mission of gradually handing over security responsibility to the Afghans. The troop withdrawal plan has been criticized by some Republicans as too fast and risky, while some Democrats have complained that it is too slow and cautious.
Obama ordered that 10,000 U.S. forces be gone by the end of the year and that another 23,000 be home by September 2012.
"I'm confident the withdrawal will be all right now," he said about the initial decisions on drawing down forces between now and the end of the year.
But other decisions how the drawdown will be further implemented have not yet been finalized, he said.
"How they determine to do that is going to be real critical because it's about capacity growing and downsizing and we've got to match those things up," he said.
Separately in Afghanistan, 24 de-miners kidnapped last week in the southwest were released.
A team of more than 30 Afghan de-miners was ambushed and captured July 6 while driving to a work site in Farah province. Four of the captives were killed before negotiations resulted in the release of the rest, according to the United Nations' demining coordination unit. The Afghan government had previously reported six killed.
Farah province Police Chief Mohammad Ghaws Malyar said the final members of the group were released Monday. He said tribal elders in the area negotiated the release with their captors but that no money changed hands.