WASHINGTON — Thousands of tons of military equipment intended for the Afghan army and police is stranded in Pakistan, which for months has refused to reopen ground supply routes for NATO convoys despite high-level U.S. pressure, a new Pentagon report says.
Unless Pakistan reopens the routes, Afghan army units will face “increasing shortages of equipment, particularly of vehicles,” according to the report, a regular assessment of the U.S.-led war made public Tuesday.
Lack of access to the routes is “a strategic concern” that “will also significantly” hamper the U.S. military’s ability to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan over the next three years, according to the Pentagon.
Islamabad barred North Atlantic Treaty Organization convoys in November after U.S. forces mistakenly fired on two Pakistan border posts, killing 24 soldiers.
The report, which Congress requires every six months, gives a largely positive assessment of the war, noting that violence levels from October to March are lower in most parts of the country compared with the same period a year earlier. Afghan army and police units, which are due to take over the main combat role in late 2014 from the U.S. and its allies, are improving, it says.
But the campaign still faces “long-term and acute challenges” unless Pakistan moves against Taliban sanctuaries along the border and the Afghan government curtails corruption and takes other steps to improve its popularity with ordinary Afghans.
A senior Defense official who briefed reporters on the report on the condition of anonymity, said that “we are making serious important progress” but “challenges remain.”
Attacks by insurgents in 2012 were down 16 percent compared with the same period in 2011, but the level of violence went up 13 percent in Kandahar province and other parts of the south, which has been a focus of U.S. Army operations for two years. In neighboring Helmand province, where U.S. Marines are leading the effort, attacks were down 29 percent.
U.S. forces in both areas will come down in coming months, as the additional troops sent to Afghanistan by President Barack Obama in 2009 are withdrawn, bringing total U.S. forces in Afghanistan to 68,000 by September.
Despite the U.S. focus on the south since 2009, “Helmand and Kandahar remains two of the most violent provinces in Afghanistan, due in part to insurgent sanctuaries” across the border in Pakistan, the report says.
In eastern Afghanistan, enemy attacks declined 8 percent, the report says. But the Haqqani network, an insurgent group based in Pakistan, remains a powerful force, able to generate large-scale attacks in Kabul and elsewhere.
“It does represent a problem,” the senior Defense official said of the Haqqani fighters. He added that “we are shifting the emphasis to the east” over the next year.
The strategy of handing off combat to Afghan forces has been hampered by the inability to ship equipment through Pakistan. More than 4,000 vehicles intended for the Afghan forces are stuck in Pakistan, but the U.S. and its allies have been able to deliver ammunition and communications equipment by increasing cargo flights.
Islamabad has demanded a public apology for the killing of the soldiers and better financial terms as a condition for reopening the border crossings. The U.S. expressed regret for the incident but has refused to give a formal apology.
A high-level U.S. delegation visited Islamabad last week for talks on the issue but left without any agreement, officials said.