In its semi-annual report published Tuesday, the Pentagon cites progress in establishing security in key parts of Afghanistan. But it also acknowledges that the Taliban retains significant capabilities and that there still is much work to do to convince the Afghan people to support their government rather than the insurgents.
The report, which is required by the U.S. Congress, says the coalition effort is having the most success in areas where NATO troops have been stationed for six months or more - a situation made possible by the large increase in U.S. and allied forces during the past year. But the report says the troop increase has resulted in more violence, as Taliban forces fight to retain control in key areas, particularly in southern Kandahar and Helmand Provinces.
It calls the Taliban "a resilient enemy," but says continuing attacks by the group have only local impact in certain areas. It says 45 percent of the violence is in the south.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Defense Department official told reporters that the Taliban has been largely pushed out of key populated areas. But he acknowledged it still has the ability to intimidate people in the cities, making it difficult to solidify coalition gains.
In a separate briefing, the commander of a U.S. combat brigade in northern Afghanistan, Colonel Willard Burleson, said the fight for the allegiance of the people is a decisive part of the effort his forces are making, along with Afghan troops and government civilians.
"It's connecting the government of Afghanistan and its security forces to the population in a way that the population understands that it is their government and their security forces which are going to make the difference to their livelihood," said Colonel Burleson. "You want to know that your government is going to provide those services - whether it's rule of law, whether it's security in a marketplace, whether it's conflict resolution, so that it is more beneficial to you to go with your government as opposed to an insurgent group like the Taliban."
The Pentagon report acknowledges that efforts to build Afghan government capacity and to promote economic development are lagging behind security progress. And on security, a senior State Department official says the progress is "very fragile." Still the official says Afghans have demonstrated they will shift their allegiance to the government in areas where security improves.
The officials praised the growth and improving quality of the Afghan Army and police, but acknowledged there is a long way to go to prepare them to take the lead for security throughout the country in four years, as NATO and the Afghan government agreed to do at last weekend's NATO Summit. They also praised Pakistan's efforts to root out insurgents on its side of the border, but said more effort is needed, specifically targeting groups that launch attacks into Afghanistan.
The Pentagon report covers the period from April to September. The senior defense official who spoke Tuesday said there has been significant additional progress even during the last several weeks that "is changing the reality on the ground." He cautioned that success is not guaranteed, but he urged skeptics to recognize that the unprecedented international military and civilian effort in Afghanistan is having an impact. He said it would be "irresponsible" to predict success at this point, but equally "irresponsible" to ignore the changes he believes now make success possible.