Despite improvements to security in Afghanistan, militants operating from safe havens in Pakistan and chronic problems with the Afghan government pose significant risks to a "durable, stable Afghanistan," according to a Pentagon progress report released Friday.
More than a decade since the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the start of the Afghan war, the U.S. and its allies have reversed violence in much of the country, and the transition to Afghans taking charge of security has begun in seven key areas, including major cities such as Kabul and Herat.
"Security gains during (the past six months) have provided a firm foundation for the transition of security responsibilities to the Afghan government" and its security forces, the report said.
However, cross-border attacks have increased in recent months due to insurgents' safe havens in Pakistan and the support they receive from within its borders. "The insurgency remains resilient and, enabled by Pakistani safe havens, continues to contest" Afghan security forces throughout the country, especially in the east, according to the semiannual report sent to Congress.
The report identified chronic problems with the Afghan government, including widespread corruption, delays in reforms and political disputes, as obstacles to U.S. and coalition efforts to get Kabul to take over security. The Unites States has about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and plans to bring most forces home by the end of 2014. President Obama announced this past summer that 10,000 troops will be redeployed by the end of the year. The 33,000 troops that Obama sent as a surge force will be out by the end of September 2012, leaving about 68,000 troops.
"Transition remains on track with no demonstrated effort by the insurgency to target the process," the report said.
Overall, the report gives a more upbeat assessment of the military strategy and its future prospects. For the first time in several years, the report does not describe the progress in Afghanistan as "fragile and reversible" -- a deliberate omission, according to a defense official.
Instead, the report focused on the continuing risk areas, such as the safe havens in Pakistan and weak governing in Kabul.
The latest progress report strikes a more critical tone than previous Pentagon reports about Pakistan's failure to crack down on safe havens for militants along the border with Afghanistan, arguing that these havens enable insurgents who are considered the greatest threat to American troops.
The report said the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan had improved early on, but several events severely strained those ties, most notably the May 2 U.S. raid deep inside Pakistan that led to the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
Cross-border attacks diminished in August, but high-profile attacks in September, including an assault on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, were a significant setback.
The report said these attacks "were carried out by the Haqqani network and directly enabled by Pakistani safe haven and support."
The United States in recent weeks has stepped up criticism of Pakistan and its counterterrorism cooperation but has at the same time sought to cajole the Pakistanis into doing more. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton delivered an unusually blunt warning to the Pakistanis during a visit to Kabul last week, saying they "must be part of the solution" to the Afghan conflict.
Clinton said the Obama administration expects the Pakistani government, military and intelligence services to "take the lead" in not only fighting insurgents based in Pakistan but also in encouraging Afghan militants to reconcile with Afghan society. She said the U.S. would go it alone if Pakistan chose not to heed the call.