`Tangible progress` in Afghanistan war: Pentagon

Pentagon said Taliban insurgents are forced out of key southern strongholds.

Washington: The Pentagon said on Friday that NATO-led forces were making "tangible progress" in the Afghanistan war, with Taliban insurgents under pressure and forced out of key southern strongholds.

Although the US military acknowledged the battlefield gains were tentative and "fragile”, the cautiously optimistic assessment painted a more positive picture than the Pentagon`s previous reports to Congress.

Following an influx of US and allied reinforcements, coalition and Afghan troops have made "tangible progress, arresting the insurgents` momentum in much of the country and reversing it in a number of important areas," said the latest report.

Coalition forces have put "unprecedented pressure on the insurgency," disrupting their command structure, breaking supply networks and clearing safe havens, it added.

The report said the insurgency had been rolled back in key towns in its southern heartland over the past six months.

"Noticeable security gains are evident in Kandahar City and several critical surrounding districts, in Uruzgan Province, and in several districts in Helmand Province," said the report, which covers a period from October 01 to March 31.

But it also repeated US concerns that safe havens beyond the reach of foreign troops in neighbouring Pakistan provided a crucial lifeline for the insurgents.

"Insurgent capacity continues to be supported by sanctuaries and logistical support originating in Pakistan, and insurgents will likely retain operational momentum in areas where these support structures exist," it said.

To consolidate progress in security in recent months, Pakistan needed to make more headway in eliminating the sanctuaries, it said.

The presence of the safe havens have strained relations between Washington and Islamabad, with US officials repeatedly demanding the Pakistani army crack down on the Haqqani network and other violent militants based in North Waziristan.

The Pentagon report comes at a crucial moment as the United States prepares to begin a drawdown in July of its 100,000-strong force and as the Afghan government plans to take over security duties in some districts.

The recruitment and training of Afghan security forces was said to be on schedule, with the Army and police increasingly capable.

But the report warned that a shortage of international trainers to instruct the Afghan troops could derail growth targets for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and jeopardize a planned handover to Afghan forces from foreign troops.

Failure to ensure a sufficient number of trainers for Afghan forces "poses a strategic risk to ANSF growth and an increased risk to transition," it said.

Violent incidents rose from October 2010 through March 2011 compared to last winter, a time when fighting usually subsides until warmer weather sets in.

Insurgent attacks spiked compared to a year ago because of an increased NATO and Afghan troop presence, an aggressive tempo of operations by coalition forces, mild winter weather and Taliban orders to their fighters to keep up assaults throughout the winter.

Damage to the insurgency was reflected in a decline in the proportion of complex attacks -- operations using at least two types of weapons -- and NATO tactics had restricted the Taliban`s freedom of movement and logistics, the report added.

Operations by NATO-led forces "are steadily eroding insurgent morale" with reports suggesting "increased friction between rank-and-file insurgents in Afghanistan and their senior leadership in Pakistan," it said.

Bureau Report