Pentagon Report: Taliban Still Strong In Afghanistan

The latest Pentagon report to Congress on Afghanistan says the insurgency is still "resilient" and violence in some areas is at the same level as last year. But the Afghan forces are taking the brunt of the casualties now that the U.S. troop presence has decreased and the remaining forces have turned to training the Afghans.

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Progress, or lack of progress, is the subject of the new Pentagon report about the war in Afghanistan. It's basically a report card to Congress that the Pentagon must provide every six months, and today's edition offers a mixed verdict. The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan continues to be resilient, with attacks in some areas at the same level as last year. But as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, Afghan security forces are taking the lead in the fight now that the U.S. is drawing down.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: There's one word that keeps popping up in a nearly 200-page report: challenges. The security situation remains challenging. There are still challenges with the Afghan government, plagued by corruption and inefficiency. And another challenge: an increase in opium production, which helps finance the insurgency.

But Peter Lavoy, an acting assistant secretary of defense, told reporters that the one other challenge has been overcome, training an Afghan security force that can take on the Taliban.

PETER LAVOY: The Army, I think, has emerged into the strongest institution in the entire country and they're out there really providing the security of the population.

BOWMAN: The report says that the Afghan Army and police are increasingly in the lead on combat operations and that's taking a toll on them. There were more than 300 Afghan security forces killed in March. That's compared to 16 coalition troops.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: I think the way to envision Afghanistan today is a weak and troubled state that nonetheless has a strong enough army and police force that it'll probably hold together.

BOWMAN: Michael O'Hanlon is a defense analyst who has made numerous trips to Afghanistan. He agrees that continued development of the Afghan forces is one of the few bright spots.

O'HANLON: There's no doubt this is a place that's going have an ongoing insurgency, that's going to have an ongoing huge drug problem, and it's going to be one of the least developed states on Earth.

BOWMAN: So Afghanistan may have a competent military, but it's a troubled state, and that's fueling the Taliban insurgency more than a decade after the war began. The Taliban is now less capable, the report says, but still resilient, partly because of its safe havens in Pakistan. And the report once again paints a bleak picture of the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. At the top of the list, corruption. Again, the Pentagon's Peter Lavoy.

LAVOY: Corruption is a critical concern. It has been. It remains one. And it probably will be a concern going forward.

BOWMAN: Karzai says he'll step down next spring when new elections are held. Senior military officers and defense analysts like Lawrence Korb say they're hoping for a more competent leader with broad support.

LAWRENCE KORB: Are you going to have a government that's going to get the loyalty of the people and the military to want to fight and die for it? To me that's the real issue.

BOWMAN: Some senior U.S. military officers worry that in a political crisis the Afghan soldiers might side with the country's various warlords rather than with the government. The Pentagon's Peter Lavoy agrees.

LAVOY: The cohesion of the force is largely dependent on the political cohesion of the society. And the election could open up schisms that would be problematic.

BOWMAN: The U.S. will end its combat mission at the end of 2014, but the report says the Afghan army and police will continue to need help for years to come, what the report calls substantial training, advising and assistance. And that effort could mean as many as 10,000 American troops. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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