The Taliban insurgency has spread to more of Afghanistan in recent months and violence has reached new highs, though there have been "slow and incremental" security gains in areas of the south where tens of thousands of additional U.S. troops have deployed, according to a Pentagon report released Tuesday.
Though NATO and Afghan forces have "increased pressure on insurgent networks over the past several months, the insurgency has proven resilient" and "will retain operational momentum in some areas" as long as the Taliban can use neighboring Pakistan and Iran as sanctuaries, the report says.
It adds that the number of Afghans rating security as "bad" is at its highest level since the survey began in 2008, a trend the report concludes was due "to the steady increase in total violence over the past nine months."
The sobering appraisal, which examines developments from April through September and is required by Congress, contrasts with the more upbeat assessment heard in recent days from President Obama and senior military officers, who have emphasized signs that the war is turning around and that momentum is shifting away from the Taliban.
Release of the report comes days after Obama and other NATO leaders meeting in Lisbon endorsed a plan for NATO troops to turn over primary security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014, a four-year transition that reflects the magnitude of the difficulty remaining in Afghanistan.
The 2014 date was an attempt by the White House to deemphasize Obama's announcement last year that the U.S. would begin drawing down its troops in Afghanistan in July 2011, news that deepened suspicion among Afghans and others in the region that the U.S. would leave, thus enabling the Taliban to return to power.
That concern remains a deep source of the insurgency's resilience and the unwillingness of many Afghans to reject the Taliban, the report says: "The Taliban's strength lies in the Afghan population's perception that coalition forces will soon leave, giving credence to the belief that a Taliban victory is inevitable."
A senior Pentagon official who briefed reporters Tuesday on the report focused on the positive, saying that "we've seen a lot of encouraging signs over the last six or seven weeks" in the period not covered by the report. But he added that "in no way is anybody guaranteeing success."
He and other officials spoke on the condition they not be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
The previous Afghanistan assessment issued by the Pentagon, in June, concluded that the U.S. faced "severe challenges" and that the security situation was continuing to "deteriorate." The assessment released Tuesday found that security conditions over the last three months were "relatively unchanged" in the 124 districts deemed by international forces to be "key terrain."
Three districts in the east and one in the south have seen security worsen, meaning residents and troops in those areas now face "frequent threats," while in two other districts, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, conditions have improved.
With nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and nearly 50,000 other foreign forces now in Afghanistan, "we are pushing the Taliban out of the populated areas," a senior State Department official said. But he acknowledged that the gains remained "fragile" and that the Taliban, even when driven out of cities and towns, continued to have influence.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, is said by aides to be deeply concerned that lasting gains in Afghanistan are impossible unless Pakistan's military takes more decisive action against members of the Afghan Taliban who have taken refuge in Pakistan's tribal areas, including North Waziristan and Baluchistan.
"Insurgent safe havens along the border will remain the primary problem to achieving a secure and stable Afghanistan," the report says.
"We've asked them to take more significant action," the senior Pentagon official said. He refused to provide more details, but the report notes that Pakistan has agreed to allow coalition personnel at its military headquarters in Baluchistan.
The report is similarly blunt about the problem of corruption, which it says "remains a key reason for people supporting the insurgency."
A senior State Department official said corrupt Afghan police are the major source of the problem, because they have the most contact with ordinary Afghans.
The report notes that the Afghan government's commitment to combat corruption at the local level "remains unclear."