Security progress in Afghanistan risks being undermined by the Afghan government’s failure to develop rapidly enough and tackle corruption and by shortfalls in the number of coalition trainers, the Pentagon said.
Last year’s addition of 30,000 troops from the U.S. and 10,000 more from other coalition nations cut the Taliban’s strength and further eroded support for the insurgents among the Afghan public, according to a Defense Department report released today. Those efforts were backed by a bigger, more capable Afghan national security force that now numbers almost 285,000.
The number of suicide attacks fell slightly during the period to 45 from 51 a year earlier, the department said in a report covering the six months ended March 31. Public opinion polls show Afghan perceptions of security “improved slightly” even as the stepped-up fight against the Taliban brought an increase in total violent incidents.
“Significant political challenges” for the Afghan government “could potentially threaten the progress made in the last six months,” the department said in the report to Congress. The training mission also is still short of the coalition expertise it needs to nurture the Afghan army and police to the next level, the report said.
“The months ahead will see setbacks as well as successes,” the Pentagon said. “There will be difficult fighting and tough losses as the enemy tries to regain momentum and key areas lost in the past six months.”
President Barack Obama is counting on progress in Afghanistan to allow the withdrawal of more than a token number of U.S. troops in July, a deadline he set in December 2009 for beginning to pare the almost 100,000 American troops on the ground. Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced in March that seven areas covering as much as a quarter of the country’s population would begin the transition to Afghan control in July.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said April 26 that he hadn’t received recommendations yet from Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, on the number of troops that could be withdrawn. Obama announced yesterday that he’s nominating Petraeus to become CIA director and will replace him in Afghanistan with Lieutenant General John Allen in September, pending Senate confirmation.
Handing Over Control
Coalition leaders have to determine where they can most safety spare troops for the drawdown. Most of the first areas being transferred to Afghan control already have relatively few forces from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its other partner nations in the coalition, according to the Pentagon report.
NATO in November endorsed a goal of handing over security control throughout the country to Afghanistan in 2014. Gates has said the U.S. probably will continue to keep some troops there, as it has in Iraq after handing over the lead to that country’s forces in 2009.
The Taliban controls less area and fewer people than it has in recent years, and it commands fewer of the key districts it had controlled since the mid-1990s, a U.S. defense official said at the Pentagon today. The official spoke on condition of anonymity under ground rules for briefing reporters on the report.
The progress made is consistent with results the coalition expected from last year’s troop increase, the official said.
The total number of violent incidents rose during the six-month period compared with a year earlier, according to the report. The department attributed the trend to increased numbers of allied forces, Afghan soldiers and police, as well as to “the higher operations tempo.” Violent incidents did fall compared to the six months immediately prior to the period.
The insurgency continues to be sustained financially by taxation, extortion, smuggling, drug trafficking and “a substantial external funding system of foreign donations,” according to the report.
The growth of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, augmented by local police, has helped stymie the insurgents. The NATO Training Mission expanded the number of Afghan soldiers by 21,199 during the period to 159,363. The national police force grew by 15,030 to 125,589, and about 1 percent of officers are women.
Afghan forces are more often taking the lead, and their skills have improved significantly, according to the report.
Hundreds of additional trainers still are needed to take the forces to the next level, mostly in specialized areas such as logistics, medicine and transport, the defense official said.
The lag in governing capability at the provincial and more local levels, and continuing issues of corruption, threaten security progress, according to the report. The Afghan government did institute merit-based hiring and finished plans to build justice centers in the country, the Pentagon said.
“The percentage of Afghans who think the government has more influence than the insurgents, 74 percent, was the highest it has been since the survey began two years ago,” the Pentagon reported. The same was true of the 45 percent who feel safe traveling outside their village.