By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; A09
The Afghan government can count on popular support only in a quarter of the main urban areas and other districts that are considered key to winning the war with the Taliban and other insurgents, the Pentagon said in a report delivered to Congress on Wednesday.
In the status report on the war in Afghanistan, the Defense Department said that years of rising instability had "leveled off" since January and that the number of Afghans who see their government heading in the right direction has increased.
The report stops short of declaring that the tide has turned in a nine-year war in which the Taliban has made a strong comeback since it was toppled from power after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In fact, polling of Afghan civilians by the U.S. and NATO military command indicates that President Obama's new strategy for the war has not done much to change popular sentiment regarding several key measures.
For instance, the number of Afghans who rate U.S. and NATO forces as "good" or "very good" dropped from 38 percent in December -- when Obama announced his new strategy -- to 29 percent in March.
The decline is significant given the U.S. military's renewed emphasis on counterinsurgency, in which it has tried to improve security and minimize civilian casualties in hopes of building loyalty toward the fragile Afghan government.
The Pentagon report attributed the decline partly to the increased number of troops from the International Security Assistance Force, a U.S. and NATO coalition, but acknowledged that improving popular support for the foreign troops is critical. "The alternative is popular support for the insurgency, which renders the ISAF mission unachievable," the report stated. As of March 31, ISAF comprised 87,000 U.S. troops and 46,500 troops from NATO countries and other allies.
The U.S. military presence is scheduled to reach a peak of 98,000 in August. The surge is expected to be temporary; Obama has said he will begin withdrawing forces by July 2011.
A major obstacle facing the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is persuading skeptical Afghans that the central government deserves their allegiance over the Taliban. In an assessment of 121 Afghan districts that it considers crucial to winning the war, the U.S. military found that only about one-quarter -- or 29 districts -- could be classified as sympathetic to the government.
In comparison, 48 of the districts were classified as supportive of or sympathetic to the Taliban, a proportion basically unchanged since December. The remainder of the districts was rated "neutral," meaning that their sympathies were considered up for grabs.
One bright spot in the report is that a majority of Afghans surveyed in March thought their government was "headed in the right direction," an increase of eight percentage points from September, around the time when national elections were widely criticized by international observers as fraudulent.
Views on government corruption, however, "continue to be decidedly negative," the report found, with 83 percent of Afghans reporting that corruption affected their daily lives -- an increase of four percentage points from September.
"While Afghanistan has achieved some progress on anti-corruption, particular with regard to legal and institutional reforms, real change remains elusive and political will, in particular, remains doubtful," the report stated.