By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; A06
A new Defense Department report on Afghanistan described progress in the war as "uneven" and painted a more sobering picture than public comments made recently by President Obama and U.S. military officials.
The report, mandated by Congress for delivery every six months, spoke of "modest gains in security, governance and development in operational priority areas." But the advances cited appeared to be outweighed by what the report's authors called "numerous challenges."
The period covered by the assessment ended Sept. 30, and a defense official authorized to brief reporters on the condition of anonymity said there had been "a lot of encouraging signs over the past six to seven weeks."
The report came as the Pentagon and other government departments and agencies have provided the White House with internal war assessments that will form the basis of a strategic review to be completed by mid-December. An interagency group is now collating the various "inputs" for consideration next week by the National Security Council's deputies committee, a senior defense official said.
That committee will report overall findings to national security principals and Obama, who will determine whether to make any changes in the strategy he outlined a year ago. The strategy included deployment of an additional 30,000 troops, for a total U.S. force of about 100,000, and a tripling, to more than 1,000, of U.S. civilian officials.
"We're looking at the path and pace of progress," the senior official said. "How is the strategy being implemented? Where are we achieving the desired effects, and where we are not, why not? What adjustments can be made?"
As far as the Pentagon is concerned, the official said, "we are seeing the shift of momentum that we aimed for" against Taliban forces. "It's not complete, and there are still challenges." But "the concept is being proven in key areas." Other officials have said they do not anticipate significant changes in the strategy.
Speaking at a NATO summit in Portugal last weekend, Obama said that "the objective assessment is that we have made progress" in the war effort, and "we are in a better place now than we were a year ago."
The Pentagon's biannual report to Congress, titled "Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan," made little mention of gains Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top coalition commander, has cited in recent weeks in the capture and killing of Taliban field commanders, and in the clearing of insurgent strongholds around the key southern city of Kandahar. Although it mentioned ongoing shortfalls in the number of trainers coalition members have provided, officials at the NATO summit said commitments have now been made to fill all empty slots.
The report spoke of progress in recruitment and training of Afghan security forces, with some gains in optimism among Afghans about the direction of their government, and said that security has improved in those areas where the coalition has invested the most time and resources.
While "the insurgency retains momentum in certain areas," it said, "momentum is shifting in favor of Afghan Forces" and the coalition in others.
"Of course, there are skeptics," the Pentagon briefer said. "There are always skeptics. This is an extraordinarily dynamic process. In no way, shape or form is anyone guaranteeing success."
The report provided ample ammunition for those inclined toward skepticism. While the administration of Afghan President Hamid Karzai has prosecuted some high-level officials for corruption, it said, "progress remains uneven and incremental." Afghan army recruitment among southern Pashtuns, the main ethnic group of the Taliban, "remains a significant challenge," it said.
The Interior Ministry, under coalition tutelage, "remains assessed as not being able to accomplish its mission without significant coalition assistance," it said, with seven of 25 departments operating with only "some" assistance, 16 needing "significant" help, and two "assessed as existing but not able to accomplish their mission."
"Progress is slow in the justice sector," it said.
Although 48 percent of Afghans said their government was heading in the right direction, the report noted that "positive perceptions of security have declined since the March 2010 Nationwide Survey. . . . The number of Afghans rating their security situation as 'bad,' is the highest since the nationwide survey began in September 2008."
Seemingly stating the obvious, the report said that "this downward trend in security perception is likely due to the steady increase in total violence over the past nine months."
Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.