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U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan makes gains but faces challenges, Pentagon report says

Published May 1, 2012 6:45 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • The U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has weakened the Taliban and helped improve the country's security forces, but enemy havens in Pakistan and widespread government corruption remain stubborn challenges, a new Pentagon report says.

The report concluded that the strategy is sound despite the challenges.

The conclusions, contained in the latest semiannual Pentagon report to Congress, hues closely to how most military officials have publicly described the war.

An increase in U.S. troops has helped secure much of the country against the Taliban. But problems that are largely outside the control of the armed forces — government corruption and safe refuges in Pakistan — need to be fixed in order to achieve a lasting security.

"The Taliban-led insurgency's safe haven in Pakistan, as well as the limited capacity of the Afghan Government, remain the biggest risks to the process of turning security gains into a durable and sustainable Afghanistan," the report said.

Insurgents "still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan," the report said. For example, insurgents slip across the border from Pakistan into Logar and Wardak provinces in the east, and from there stage attacks on Kabul.

U.S.-Pakistan relations have grown increasingly strained. It is unlikely the United States would take unilateral action in Pakistan and equally unlikely that the Pakistanis would cooperate in an effort to drive insurgents from their havens, analysts say.

"As long as this remains the case, it's hard to see how we can resolve the issue of external support," said Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

In addition, widespread corruption in the Afghan government undermines its legitimacy and bolsters insurgent propaganda, analysts say.

"If you do not get a handle on those problems, you're going to continue to see lack of confidence in the Afghan government, which in the past has driven people toward the Afghan insurgency," said Mark Jacobson, a former NATO official in Afghanistan now at the German Marshall Fund.

Still, the surge of U.S. troops that began more than two years ago has driven down violence, secured large swaths of the population and increased the effectiveness of Afghan security forces, the report says.

The continued progress in security is a positive sign, analysts say. "The concern would be if you saw signs of a deteriorating security situation," Jacobson said.

Enemy-initiated attacks decreased by 16 percent in the six-month period through March 31 compared with last year.

The reduction in violence has allowed the coalition to increasingly turn over security responsibilities to Afghan forces. Almost half of Afghanistan's population now lives in regions under Afghan security control.

The transition to Afghan control is a central element of the strategy in Afghanistan. The number of U.S. troops is continuing to decline from its peak of nearly 101,000 last year.

Today, there are about 88,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. That number will decline to 68,000 by the end of this year. Most U.S. combat forces will be out by the end of 2014, though a residual force may remain beyond that target date.