WASHINGTON — While the number of insurgent attacks across Afghanistan again fell, the continued presence of Taliban and al-Qaida fighters operating from safe havens in Pakistan is the No. 1 roadblock to a successful conclusion of the war over the next few years, the Pentagon said Tuesday in the latest biannual report on progress in Afghanistan.
But the report said continuing counterinsurgency operations by NATO and Afghan troops have “severely degraded” the Taliban overall, while Afghan troops are becoming more numerous and better trained.
NATO’s military campaign is designed to stop infiltration by insurgents from Pakistan, while the United States continues to push the Pakistani government to clamp down, a senior defense official told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.
“It’s Pakistan’s duty as a responsible international country to control all violence that emanates from its borders and other areas,” the official said. “We’re going to continue to push it.”
Total attacks by insurgents from October 2011 through March 2012 dropped 16 percent from the same time period last year, the Pentagon reported. But attacks rose 13 percent in Regional Command-South and 7 percent in Regional Command-West.
“The attacks in RC-South going up by 13 percent was partly because we were doing operations in wider areas, and because we had gone into areas where the Taliban had never been challenged before,” the senior defense official said.
Overall, the report presented a mixed picture, as the U.S.–led coalition strives to push Afghans increasingly to the fore to prepare for the end of combat operations by December 2014. Having capable security forces and a functional government in place by then are prerequisites to a successful transition, but the report says the government remains plagued by corruption and “low capacity.”
The report presents a brighter view of Afghan security forces. The Pentagon chose a watchful Afghan soldier for the cover of the report, where previous installments had featured images of U.S. troops.
“The point is we are transitioning to an Afghanistan security lead,“ the senior defense official said. “The Afghan security forces continue to improve not just in numbers but also in quality.”
Afghan National Security Forces have grown from about 285,000 army and police personnel last March to about 345,000 now. In September 2011, no Afghan National Police units and only one Afghan National Army brigade had been rated by NATO commanders as “independent with advisors.” As of the end of March 2012, 13 ANA brigades were considered largely independent, as were 39 ANP units.
It’s unclear if the small but rising numbers of competent Afghan troops translates into sufficient security forces in the future, said Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“Once most U.S. forces leave Afghanistan, will they be able to effectively provide security?” he said. “I think that remains an unknown.”
To maximize chances for success, the international community must continue supporting Afghanistan, Nelson said, adding, “If it’s not going to come through large numbers of troops … then it’s going to have to come in the form of foreign aid.”
The mission to train Afghan forces has been plagued by violence, particularly in recent months.
The report notes a rising number of attacks on International Security Assistance Force troops by Afghan forces — more than 50 since May 2007. A recent Associated Press report noted that 19 of the ISAF combat deaths this year were in so-called “green-on-blue” attacks. As of April 29, there had been a total of 138 combat deaths this year, according the independent website iCasualties, which tracks coalition deaths in Afghanistan.
While the report says such attacks can have “significant negative operational and strategic impact,” it concludes that they have not “significantly hurt relations between the ANSF and ISAF.”
But the training mission is probably not going as quickly and efficiently as it would if green-on-blue violence were not an issue, said James Phillips, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.
“The confidence level of American and other foreign advisors has to have been affected,” he said. “I think advisers embedded with the Afghans can still do their jobs, but I would think there would be a little more caution applied that could undercut the effectiveness of the cooperation.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Jennifer Hlad contributed to this report.