WASHINGTON — The Pentagon Wednesday issued a downbeat assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, saying that only one in four Afghans in strategically important areas currently back President Hamid Karzai's government even as the Taliban expand their insurgency and install shadow local governments.
The report to Congress outlined some areas of progress, including a leveling off of violence during the last three months, improved counter-insurgency cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistani and the finding that 84 percent of Afghans feel that security is good or fair.
Yet the overall level of violence rose 87 percent between February 2009 and March 2010, driven in part by a major U.S.-led offensive earlier this year to push the Taliban out of strongholds around Marjah in the southern opium-producing province of Helmand, according to the report.
The report underscored the challenges facing President Barack Obama, who inaugurated a new strategy to crush al Qaida while preventing Afghanistan from reverting to a sanctuary from which Islamic extremists could be launch attacks against the U.S. and its allies.
The strategy calls for a 30,000-troop increase that will bring the number of American forces in Afghanistan to some 98,000 by August. U.S. allies, currently at some 46,500 troops, have pledged to send 9,000 additional soldiers.
U.S. European allies, however, plan to begin "transitioning" an unknown number of districts to the Afghan government sometime this year, a process that the Obama administration aims to start in July 2011, when it will also begin withdrawing U.S. troops.
The Pentagon assessment was issued two weeks before Karzai visits Washington for talks with Obama amid strained relations over Afghan government corruption, the deaths of Afghan civilians in U.S.-led military operations and other issues.
Government corruption remains a serious problem, the report said.
"While Afghanistan has achieved some progress on anti-corruption, particular with regard to legal and institutional reforms, real change remains elusive and political will, in particular, remains doubtful," it said.
The counter-insurgency campaign overseen by U.S. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the commander of the U.S.-led international force, is focused on 121 districts considered strategically important because of large populations, economic resources, commercial importance or key infrastructure.
Opinion surveys, the report said, found that only 24 percent of the people in those 121 districts sympathize with or support Karzai's government, formed after the fraud-tainted August 2009 elections.
At the same time, more than half of Afghans blame the Taliban for the insecurity wracking the country, it said.
Taliban commanders responded to the U.S. troop increase by ordering their fighters to avoid head-on clashes with American-led forces and instead stepping up their use of long-distance attacks and roadside bombs or improvised explosive devices, the report said.
"This reporting period has seen insurgent combatants adhere closely to their leaders' intent with a 236 percent increase in IEDs noted across the country and a marked increase in stand-off tactics compared to the same period last year," the report continued.
It raised questions about the effectiveness of the Marjah offensive, saying the Afghan government had been slow to bring in the local administrators and development projects that are critical to winning over the local people.
"The insurgents' tactic of re-infiltrating the cleared areas to perform executions has played a role in dissuading locals from siding with the Afghan government, which has complicated efforts to introduce effective governance," it said.
The Taliban-led insurgency's "operational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding," said the report, adding that the "strength and ability of (insurgent-run) shadow governance to discredit the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government is increasing."
At the same time, the report said, Taliban insurgents have come under "unprecedented pressure" from strained resources and disputes among commanders that have hurt morale.
"From the insurgents' perspective, this strain has been compounded by the recent high-profile arrests of several Pakistan-based insurgent leaders by Pakistani authorities and removal of many Afghanistan-based commanders," it said.
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