Despite the problems, U.S. commanders point to signs of progress. There are new indications that the Taliban is having a harder time recruiting fighters locally. In two districts of Ghazni province where U.S. forces have fought tough battles, as many as 55 percent of insurgents who were captured or killed had come from outside the region to fight. Many of the fighters were drawn from the “vast Pashtun sea” that straddles both sides of the border with Pakistan, a senior U.S. military official said.
Some commanders point to the influx of foreign fighters as a sign that Afghans are ready to seek peace. “What we can definitively state is that the population is tired of the fighting,” said Allyn, the top commander in the east.
Others worry that the supply of young fighters from Pakistan could be inexhaustible. “They are like bees,” one U.S. official said. “How many do you have to kill to get them all?”
Dissatisfaction with Kabul
U.S. and Afghan forces have made their biggest gains over the past year in southern Afghanistan. Violence levels have fallen dramatically in the wake of advances by U.S. troops, and the Afghan army and police have performed better than expected in many of these areas.
“Their efforts have seized the initiative from the Taliban, and they will not regain it,” Lt. Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, the No. 2 commander in Afghanistan, said at a ceremony in Kandahar province last week.
The concern, even in the south, is that the military gains against the Taliban have not led to widespread improvements in the performance of the Kabul government or a reduction in the sort of corruption that drives Afghans to support the insurgency.
“If we continue to draw down forces at pace while such public and systemic corruption is left unchecked . . . we risk leaving behind a government in which we cannot reasonably expect Afghans to have faith,” Adm. Mike Mullen said late last month before stepping down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In recent months, U.S. efforts to confront Afghan corruption have stumbled or been scaled back. A turning point came in the spring, when Afghan investigators, working with Western advisers, arrested an aide to President Hamid Karzai on allegations of bribery. Karzai intervened to spring the aide from prison on the day of the arrest, and the political firestorm led to a deep discord in U.S.-Afghan relations. Karzai later compared the American advisers’ actions to detentions carried out during the Soviet occupation.