WASHINGTON – The Taliban has regrouped after its initial fall from power in Afghanistan and the pace of its attacks is likely to increase this year, according to a Pentagon report that offers a dim view of progress in the nearly seven-year-old war.
Noting that insurgent violence has climbed, the report said that despite U.S. and coalition efforts to capture and kill key leaders, the Taliban is likely to "maintain or even increase the scope and pace of its terrorist attacks and bombings in 2008."
The Taliban, it said, has "coalesced into a resilient insurgency."
At the same time, the Afghan Army and national police are progressing slowly and still lack the trainers they need.
The report was released Friday along with a separate plan for the development of Afghan security forces. They are the first two comprehensive Pentagon reports to evaluate progress in Afghanistan.
Vast problems — corruption, the illegal poppy trade, human rights abuses and slow progress in reconstruction — were detailed, as well as the struggle to train and equip the Afghan Army and police.
The report described a dual terror threat in Afghanistan that includes the Taliban in the south, and "a more complex, adaptive insurgency" in the east. That fragmented insurgency is made up of groups ranging from al-Qaida and Afghan warlords such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's radical Hezb-i-Islami group to Pakistani militants such as Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Insurgents will continue to challenge the government in southern and eastern Afghanistan, and the may also move to increase their power in the north and west, the report predicted.
The assessment was bluntly pessimistic as it described efforts to train the Army and police.
As of March, it said, just one Army battalion and a headquarters unit could operate independently, while 26 battalions, five brigade headquarters and two corps headquarters units could plan and execute counterinsurgency operations with the support of coalition forces.
In addition, as of the spring, the U.S. had provided only 44 percent of the nearly 2,400 trainers needed for the Afghan Army, and just 39 percent of the mentors for the Afghan police.
Development of the Afghan police is taking longer and has been hindered by "corruption, insufficient U.S. military trainers and advisors, and a lack of unity of effort within the international community," the report noted.
The recent deployment of 1,200 U.S. Marines to serve as trainers for the police has beefed up the totals, but when those troops leave in the fall, the need for 1,400 police mentors will remain.
Overall there are 32,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, including 14,000 serving with the NATO forces and another 18,000 conducting training and counterinsurgency. As of Friday, the Defense Department has confirmed the deaths of 527 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, along with 310 from other coalition members since the start of the war in late 2001.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates referred to the worsening problems in Afghanistan on Thursday, noting that when he traveled to the border area of Khost last year, security was better.
"It actually was not bad until a few months ago," said Gates. "This is a fairly recent phenomenon of seeing the numbers (of insurgents) come across the border. After all, Khost was an example of a successful counterinsurgency."
A key to the deterioration there, he said, has been recent efforts by Pakistan to negotiate peace agreement with tribal leaders along the lawless border. Those talks, he said, took the pressure off insurgent groups and "they've therefore been more free to be able to cross the border and create problems for us."
The report concurs, calling the insurgents' safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas along the border "the greatest challenge to long-term security" in Afghanistan.
On a positive note, there is a nod to the economic and political gains in Afghanistan — including successful elections and improvements within the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and finance. It also that women are now holding government posts and teaching positions — although it said that challenges remain in eliminating human rights abuses.
In a separate report, also required by Congress and focusing on the U.S. approach to developing Afghan security forces, the Pentagon said the goal is to build a national police force of 82,000. The report said that once an assessment is made of recent reform efforts, there should be a decision on whether even larger numbers are needed.
"However, at this point in time, a lack of U.S. military trainers and mentors available for police mentor teams precludes the acceleration or expansion" of the training program, the report said.
The Afghan national army is scheduled to reach a strength of 70,000 by the end of this year, with an ultimate goal of 80,000 soldiers. The Pentagon's report offered no detailed assessment of the performance of either the police or the army; rather it described the structure of U.S. and international efforts to develop the forces and their importance to the overall goal of rebuilding Afghanistan.