Pentagon report cites limited gains in Afghanistan

By Greg Jaffe

A new Pentagon report paints a mixed picture of the war in Afghanistan, describing the insurgency as capable of replacing battlefield losses and launching high-profile attacks, even as it has lost territory to U.S. and Afghan forces.

The report, released Tuesday, says the Taliban has been unable to reclaim territory taken during the most recent fighting season in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, two areas that have been a focus of U.S. troops. It also praises the Afghan security forces, which are described as having made “impressive strides in performance” between Oct. 1 and the end of March.

But the six-month progress report, which is mandated by Congress, cites little movement forward with respect to several key issues that have hampered the war effort over the past three years. And it suggests that the Taliban remains a “resilient and determined enemy” that will “attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer.”

The most pressing concern noted in the report continues to be the insurgents’ haven in Pakistan, which U.S. officials have consistently cited as the biggest threat to the long-term success of the war. “The Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan,” the report states.

Overall, the report notes that attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces declined in 2011 for the first time in five years and that the positive trend appeared to be continuing into 2012. Helmand province, where attacks fell by 29 percent, was among the areas that showed the most impressive gains for U.S. and Afghan forces.

The United States is expected to pull as many as 10,000 troops out of Helmand over the next six months, essentially halving the American force in what continues to be one of the most violent provinces in Afghanistan.

In Kandahar province, attacks increased by 13 percent as U.S. and Afghan troops contested districts that have long been controlled by the Taliban. The picture was mixed in the east: Attacks there fell by 8 percent over the past six months, but the report attributes some of that drop, which occurred after the end of the fighting season, to one of the coldest winters in Afghanistan in the past 10 years.

The biggest question facing U.S. commanders is whether the Afghan government will be able to hold onto gains made by U.S. troops over the past three years. A major area of concern has been the ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, which has been hampered by corruption as well as shortages of trained civil servants. “Setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains,” the report said.

As U.S. military personnel reduce their numbers and focus more on shifting responsibility to the Afghan army and police, the resources available to improve Afghan governance are expected to decline.

The report seeks to make a positive out of a recent spate of negative news, including the accidental burning of Korans and the defiling of insurgent corpses by U.S. personnel. Noting that the relationship between coalition troops and the Afghan government has “endured significant shocks,” the report praises Afghan forces for containing the violence that erupted after the Koran burnings.

Smaller-scale protests, however, continue to occur with some regularity throughout the country. Scores of Afghans launched an anti-American protest in Afghanistan on Tuesday over the killings of three children during a gun battle between U.S.-led forces and Taliban insurgents.

The children were killed after the Taliban attacked a group of U.S. forces and Afghan police who were meeting with local residents in the Shah Joy district of the southeastern province of Zabul province Monday, provincial officials said.

Afghan and U.S. officials concluded that the children were killed by insurgents’ bullets. But protesters nonetheless railed against foreign forces, whom they blamed for the casualties.

Separately, two children were reported killed by a roadside bomb Monday in eastern Paktika province.

Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin in Kabul contributed to this report.

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