By Barbara Starr
Although the international coalition and Afghan government are making progress in the war in Afghanistan, "the Taliban-led insurgency and its al Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan," according to a new semi-annual report issued by the Pentagon.
"The 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," it said.
While the coalition is on track to turn security fully over to Afghan control, the insurgency "remains a resilient and determined enemy and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence this spring and summer through assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks and emplacement of improvised explosive devices," the report said.
The report, issued Tuesday, covers security developments in Afghanistan from October through the end of March. It notes this period of time saw several "significant shocks," including release of a video of U.S. Marines urinating on corpses, the inadvertent burning of religious materials by U.S. personnel, several "green on blue" incidents in which coalition forces were killed or wounded by Afghan troops, and the alleged killing of 17 civilians by a lone U.S. soldier.
But the report also says the insurgency has been "severely degraded" by Afghan and NATO combat operations, noting the "most significant security-related development" during the reporting period was the continuing decline in violence.
After five consecutive years in which enemy attacks had increased, they decreased by 9% in 2011 and by 16% in 2012.
While NATO and Afghan forces for months have focused on the Taliban heartland in the south, the share of violence in the eastern sector along the Pakistan border has increased slightly, according to the report. The United States believes this is the major infiltration route for operatives belonging to the Haqqani network in Pakistan that come into Afghanistan to stage high-profile attacks.
The report attributes this improvement to the growth of Afghan security forces and improved training. Afghans partner with coalition forces on 90 percent of coalition operations and lead on about 40 percent of those, the military says.
"Afghan forces are more and more able to take the lead," said a senior Defense Department official at a Pentagon briefing. The official briefed the media on the condition of anonymity.
But there are outside challenges beyond Pakistan. The report noted that Iran is trying to ensure a "dominant, long-term role" in Afghanistan for itself and ensure the permanent withdrawal of foreign forces.
While much of Iran's activity involves openly reaching out with economic and cultural support, the report says there is also "covert support, including the provision of weapons and training for various insurgent and political opposition groups," including the Taliban.