Pentagon: Afghan Army Has Come A Long Way

A new Pentagon report concludes that Afghanistan's military has improved and is more and more capable of taking the lead on missions. But the report warns that Afghanistan remains politically fragile, less than two years before most U.S. troops depart. And there's still a real risk that political instability in Afghanistan could fracture the nation's army.

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And the Pentagon's new report card to Congress offers a mixed picture on the Afghan War. It says the country is still plagued by government corruption, a resilient insurgency and a growing narcotics problem. But the Pentagon is also seeing an increasingly competent Afghan army. Here's NPR's Tom Bowman.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: The Afghan army is now taking the fight to the Taliban, with the U.S. largely playing a support role. There are still challenges. Attrition rates are high and Afghan troops still need help with everything from supplying themselves in the field, to medevacing wounded soldiers. But Pentagon official Peter Lavoy says the Afghan army has come a long way.

PETER LAVOY: The army, I think, has emerged into the strongest institution in the entire country. They are increasingly patriotic. They're not animated by local, ethnic or tribal allegiances.

BOWMAN: The Afghan army, Lavoy insists, is national in outlook. But privately, some senior military officers question that view. U.S. intelligence reports say former warlords - including defense minister Bismillah Khan and Ismail Khan, the current minister of energy and water - are stockpiling arms and placing supporters in key positions. Both men are ethnic Tajiks who fought with the northern alliance in 2001 against the Taliban, largely ethnic Pashtuns. The Pentagon report card says that Tajiks are over-represented in the army's officer corps, while Pashtuns are underrepresented. So there are divisions. Despite that, defense analyst Michael O'Hanlon says the army is still the glue that binds the country.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: This is a place that'll hold together by the strength of its army and police, as long as next year's presidential elections go in a way that tends to produce a little more unity, rather than the reverse or opposite.

BOWMAN: Afghan President Hamid Karzai says he'll step down next spring, and presidential elections will be held. The question is whether a consensus candidate will emerge, one who will not heighten ethnic tensions. That's something the Pentagon is watching closely. Again, Peter Lavoy.

LAVOY: If the political transition does not occur effectively, you can have a fragmentation of elite consensus in the country - political consensus.

BOWMAN: And political fragmentation, he says, could filter down to the army.

LAVOY: That could have reverberations in the military force.

BOWMAN: So even the one institution in Afghanistan that seems to be working - the army - could also fracture. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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