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Pakistan Havens, Taliban Resilience Slow Afghan War

Pakistan’s failure to shut down more havens for militants and the Taliban’s ability to adapt are slowing efforts to reverse the momentum in the Afghan war, according to a Pentagon report.

“Efforts to reduce insurgent capacity, such as safe havens and logistic support originating in Pakistan and Iran, have not produced measurable results,” the Pentagon said in a report on the war effort released today and covering the six months that ended Sept. 30. “Pakistan’s domestic extremist threat and the 2010 floods reduce the potential for a more aggressive or effective Pakistani effort in the near term.”

The U.S.-led coalition has made more inroads in Afghanistan in the seven weeks since the end of the period covered by the report, State Department and Pentagon officials said. Troops have intensified operations in the Taliban’s heartland in and around the city of Kandahar and cleared key areas of militants, the officials told reporters at the Pentagon on condition of anonymity.

Still, militant groups holing up in Pakistan’s ungoverned northwest use the mountainous terrain to cross over for attacks in Afghanistan, according to the report. Pakistan’s militants also won converts on their own territory by providing relief in areas affected by floods earlier this year.

Office in Quetta

Pakistan’s army leaders recently agreed to allow U.S. and coalition officers in that country and from Afghanistan to set up an office in Quetta, a city near the border with Afghanistan. American officials believe the Afghan Taliban leadership is based in Quetta. The office will be in the Pakistan army’s local headquarters.

The report’s findings, along with conditions on the ground since then, will feed an administration assessment of the war effort due for completion in December. Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, is seeking to show progress so he can begin to hand over some territory to Afghan control next year.

Plans for the coming months include an offensive to expand security from Kabul, the capital, into surrounding provinces, particularly in eastern Afghanistan. Coalition operations have pressured militants in that region and disrupted networks of the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which has links to the Taliban.

Adding Troops

President Barack Obama a year ago authorized 30,000 additional troops to be brought in during 2010 to step up the fight, with a timetable of beginning a drawdown by July 2011. Most of the added forces were in place by October, increasing the U.S. contingent to about 95,000. They are supplemented by 48,000 military personnel from 47 other nations in the coalition, led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The Taliban was able to regroup and adapt its techniques even as the U.S. and its partners pumped in additional troops, according to the report. The coalition was able to hold or gain ground most in areas where it has stayed the longest, such as the central part of Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.

The coalition and Afghan forces “gradually are pushing insurgents to the edges of secured population areas in a number of important locations,” officials said in the report. The Afghan government and the coalition “continue to face a resilient enemy that exploits governance gaps and continues to fight to retain long-standing sanctuaries.”

Iranian Support

While Iranian support of the Afghan insurgency hasn’t increased significantly in the past year, Iran “continues active attempts to influence events in Afghanistan” with political and financial backing for the government, as well as weapons and training for insurgents.

The perception that the U.S. and its partners won’t stick with the fight is hampering the campaign to win Afghan backing, the report said.

“The Taliban’s strength lies in the Afghan population’s perception that coalition forces will soon leave, giving credence to the belief that a Taliban victory is inevitable,” according to the report, which is based in part on public opinion polling in Afghanistan.

Misperceptions that the July 2011 date was intended as a full drawdown of all forces — rather than the beginning of a handover — fueled fears rooted in the U.S. withdrawal from the region in 1989, said the defense official briefing reporters today.

Control by 2014

NATO and its partners in the fight sought to dispel such fears while still laying out a timeline to end their involvement in the war. Heads of state who met in Lisbon last weekend agreed to aim for complete Afghan control by 2014. Coalition officials say they can’t predict how many of their forces could be withdrawn by then.

The Pentagon report, compiled with State Department, foreign aid and agriculture officials overseeing economic and political rebuilding projects in Afghanistan, cited “uneven” progress across the country, with “modest gains in security, governance and development” in the high-priority areas.

“Overall governance and development progress continues to lag security gains,” according to the report. “The Taliban is not a popular movement, but it exploits a population frustrated by weak governance.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s progress against government corruption “remains uneven and incremental,” according to the report. A September survey showed 81 percent of Afghans polled believe corruption affects their daily lives.

Bribery Arrest

The report particularly cites Karzai’s demand for the release of Mohammad Zia Salehi, the head of administration for the Afghan National Security Council, after he was arrested on “solid evidence that he had accepted a bribe in exchange for his official influence.”

A joint task force was due to begin functioning in October to integrate intelligence with planning and operations to fight corruption.

Training and development of the Afghan army and police are among the “most promising areas of progress,” according to the report. While the report cites concerns of backsliding in the absence of more trainers and mentors from coalition nations, countries stepped up at the Lisbon meeting, the U.S. defense official said today.

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