WASHINGTON — As President Obama considers how quickly to withdraw the remaining 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan and turn over the war to Afghan security forces, a bleak new Pentagon report has found that only one of the Afghan National Army’s 23 brigades is able to operate independently without air or other military support from the United States and NATO partners.
The report, released Monday, also found that violence in Afghanistan is higher than it was before the surge of American forces into the country two years ago, although it is down from a high in the summer of 2010.
The assessment found that the Taliban remain resilient, that widespread corruption continues to weaken the central Afghan government and that Pakistan persists in providing critical support to the insurgency. Insider attacks by Afghan security forces on their NATO coalition partners, while still small, are up significantly: there have been 37 so far in 2012, compared with 2 in 2007.
The assessment, “Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan,” is required twice a year by Congress and covers the six-month period from April 1 through the end of September. Although the problems in the report have been familiar for years to national security officials in Washington, the report’s publication comes at an important juncture in the war.
American officials say that Gen. John R. Allen, the senior American commander in Afghanistan, wants to keep a large majority of the 68,000 troops in Afghanistan through the fighting season next fall so that Afghan forces have as much support as possible as they move out on their own by 2014. But military officials anticipate that the White House may push for a more rapid withdrawal to cut losses in an increasingly unpopular war.
More than 2,000 American service members have died in the war, which has cost the United States more than $500 billion since 2001. More than 1,200 American service members have died in Afghanistan from the beginning of 2010 to the present, which is roughly the period of the surge.
Obama administration officials have said that progress in the war in large part depends on whether the Taliban could rebuild after the hammering it took during the surge, when American forces, with 33,000 additional troops, aggressively pursued insurgents and drove them from critical territory in the south.
But the report was blunt in its assessment of the Taliban’s current strength. “The Taliban-led insurgency remains adaptive and determined, and retains the capability to emplace substantial numbers of I.E.D.s and to conduct isolated high-profile attacks,” the report said, using the term for homemade bombs. “The insurgency also retains a significant regenerative capacity.”
The report said that although the insurgents had less capability to directly attack American and Afghan forces, they had increasingly resorted to “assassinations, kidnappings, intimidation tactics, encouraging insider attacks and strategic messaging campaigns.”
A defense official who briefed reporters at the Pentagon sought to offer a more positive picture of the Afghan security forces’ abilities than the report would suggest. Acknowledging that the progress of the security forces had been “incremental,” the official said that many of the forces patrol and carry out some operations independently, without help from NATO. “They often don’t rely on any assistance from us at all,” said the official, who declined to be named under ground rules imposed by the Pentagon.
But the official said there were nonetheless broad problems with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police, which together number 350,000 personnel. The security forces still depend over all on American air power, communications, intelligence gathering, logistics and leadership. That is true especially at the level of a brigade, which typically is composed of 3, 000 to 5,000 troops.
The official acknowledged that it would be a “challenge” to have the security forces ready to defend their own country by the end of 2014, when most American troops are to be out of Afghanistan. The White House is debating how many American forces should be left in the country after 2014 and it has opened negotiations with the Afghans on what their mission should be.
The defense official said that the rise in violence in Afghanistan — measured by what the report termed “enemy initiated attacks” — was a result of Afghan security forces pushing into Taliban-dominated areas, forcing the Taliban to fight back. The official cited three volatile districts in Kandahar Province — Maiwand, Panjwai and Zhari — as highly contested, violent areas.
Although the report did not provide month-by-month specific numbers of enemy-initiated attacks, it plotted them on a bar graph that showed, for example, that in July 2012 there were slightly more than 3,000 enemy-initiated attacks. In July 2009, before the surge began, the graph showed some 2,000 enemy-initiated attacks.
The official said it was a sign of progress that the report found that enemy-initiated attacks had declined in the city of Kandahar by 62 percent from a year ago.
The report found many problems with the Afghan government that American security officials have been aware of for years. The government, the report said, suffers from “widespread corruption, limited human capacity, lack of access to rural areas due to a lack of security, a lack of coordination between the central government and the Afghan provinces and districts, and an uneven distribution of power among the judicial, legislative and executive branches.”
One area of improvement, the report said, was the American relationship with Pakistan, which has been acrimonious in recent years. The report noted that the Pakistanis had agreed to reopen their country to trucks transporting matériel for the war in Afghanistan. However, the report said that “tensions remain” over insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan and cross-border attacks.
The report had been due to be released in early November, before the presidential election, but was delayed. The Pentagon did not give a reason for the delay.