Afghan War Poses ‘Acute Challenges,’ Pentagon Report Says

Afghanistan War Effort Faces ‘Long-Term and Acute Challenges’
US Soldiers stop traffic leading to the governor's compound in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Photographer: Jangir/AFP/GettyImages

The U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan faces “long-term and acute challenges” from militant sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and “widespread corruption” in the Afghan government, the Defense Department said.

“The insurgency remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer,” the department wrote in a semi-annual report sent to Congress yesterday and planned for release in Washington today. “Additionally, the Afghan government continues to face widespread corruption that limits its effectiveness and legitimacy.”

The findings contradict accounts of progress U.S. and other coalition officials say will let them withdraw most of their combined 128,000 personnel by the end of 2014. That drawdown leaves Afghan security forces and governing authorities increasingly in charge as the U.S. struggles to mend frayed relations with Pakistan over drone strikes that are critical to stemming the insurgency.

The report cited “pervasive mistrust” as hindering U.S.- Pakistan relations and said that the Pakistan-based Haqqani network threatens a “stable political solution” in Afghanistan.

The report, covering the six months ended March 31, recounted “significant shocks” to relations between the NATO-led coalition and the Afghan government. They included video of U.S. Marines urinating on Taliban fighters’ corpses, news that American troops inadvertently burned copies of the Koran, attacks by Afghan security personnel on coalition forces and the March killing of 17 Afghan civilians allegedly committed by a U.S. soldier.

Green-on-Blue Assaults

In a section on so-called “Green-on-Blue” assaults by Afghan troops on U.S. personnel, the department said such attacks, while “high-profile,” are “rare,” with 52 occurring between May 2007 and March 31 -- killing 86 personnel and wounding 115.

“While statistically small in number,” the report said, “Green-on-Blue attacks have significant negative operational and strategic impact on the coalition mission,” such as a brief February suspension of U.S. military mentoring for the Ministry of Interior.

The incidents undermine a key element of the U.S. plan for ending the war: close work with Afghans to ensure they are trained to take over. Still, the report’s authors defended the overall administration strategy on Afghanistan as “sound.”

‘Diplomatic Rift’

“These attacks have not yet caused a major diplomatic rift nor have they significantly hurt relations” between Afghan and NATO forces, officials said in the report.

Post-attack investigations determined that a large number of assaults stem from “isolated personal grievances” against coalition personnel, not insurgent infiltration, the department reported. “There is no indication these attacks are part of a deliberate effort by insurgents, nor were they coordinated with each other,” the department said.

The U.S. reports only deaths resulting from such insider incidents, not injuries or cases in which the attacker misses the coalition target, the Associated Press reported.

The Pentagon report strikes a pessimistic tone on improving U.S.-Pakistan relations, which suffered a major setback in November when 24 Pakistani troops were accidentally killed in U.S. airstrikes during a cross-border attack. Pakistan cut off land-based supply routes in Afghanistan, and none have been reopened.

Supply Routes

The supply routes to and from Afghanistan via Pakistan will become even more important as the U.S. exits from the war and removes billions of dollars of equipment. While coalition troops have been able to receive supplies via northern routes, such as one using an air base in Kyrgyzstan, those alternatives largely rely on goodwill with Russia, a relationship set to become more strained with the return of Vladimir Putin to that country’s presidency.

The report outlined several attempts at meetings between U.S. and Pakistani officials to improve relations, concluding that the two nations have “divergent strategic interests” that “continue to make genuine cooperation difficult.”

A missile strike that is suspected to have come from a U.S. drone killed two people and injured three in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region this weekend, two days after the latest round of talks. Pakistan told the Obama administration in March it would no longer let U.S. drones use its airspace to attack militants or to collect intelligence on al-Qaeda or other groups, according to officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because the drone program is classified.

Stable Solution

Taliban and allied Haqqani network attacks from northwest Pakistan “continue to threaten the emergence of a durable and stable political solution,” the Pentagon says.

Last year, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said the Haqqani militant group essentially had become a proxy for Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Pakistani leaders have allowed an insurgent sanctuary in North Waziristan “due to their concerns that Pakistan will be left alone to confront an unstable, an unfriendly or an Indian-influenced Afghanistan on its borders,” according to the new report.

The havens threaten areas of Afghanistan, such as Kandahar, that the report’s authors described as “among the most contested provinces in Afghanistan, due in part to insurgent safe havens and freedom of movement across the border in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.”

Fatal Injury

The Pentagon yesterday announced the death of another U.S. soldier in Ghazni Province in Afghanistan’s east. Private First Class Christian Sannicolas, 20, of Anaheim, California, died April 28 of blast injuries after his vehicle hit a roadside bomb. He was part of 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Overall, the level of attacks initiated by militants in Afghanistan dropped last year for the first time in five years, according to the report. Still, the decrease was limited to 8 percent during the six months ended March 31.

Such enemy attacks rose 3 percent in eastern Afghanistan, where the Haqqani network is most active. The region accounted for 34 percent of attacks initiated by militants nationwide.

Insurgents probably will step up assassinations, high-profile attacks and the use of roadside bombs this year to regain lost territory and influence, the department said. The capital, Kabul, and three other cities saw such incidents in an 18-hour period two weeks ago, attacks that Pentagon officials ultimately said were the responsibility of the Haqqani group.

“The capital continues to face persistent threats, many of which are planned in and controlled from Pakistan,” according to the report.

Al-Qaeda Status

Al-Qaeda, one year after the death of its founder Osama Bin Laden, continued to suffer “major setbacks” that have “constrained” its role in Afghanistan, the report said. Bin Laden planned the September 11, 2001 attacks from there.

The terrorist group has been “degraded” and become “reliant on a shrinking cadre of experienced leaders primarily inside a Haqqani-facilitated safe haven in North Waziristan,” it said.

Al-Qaeda has a small presence in Kunar and Nuristan provinces and views continued involved in Afghanistan as “integral to its global image and relevance,” the Pentagon1 said.

(Defense Department corrects casualty location in 20th paragraph.)
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