WASHINGTON The U.S. military believes that Afghans support President Hamid Karzai's government in only a quarter of key areas of the country and that political will to tackle corruption "remains doubtful," according to a Pentagon assessment released on Wednesday.
The Pentagon described its 152-page report to Congress as a "sober" evaluation of progress in the more than 8-year-old war. In addition to shortfalls, it flagged gains like increased pressure on the Taliban and improved Afghan views of their own security.
Overall, it said there were real signs of progress.
Released ahead of Karzai's May 10-14 visit to Washington, the report put a spotlight on extensive U.S. concerns about the Afghan government as NATO tries to turn the tide in its battle against the Taliban.
Perceived corruption, U.S. officials say, is a persistent problem that undermines NATO efforts to win the confidence of Afghans and sideline the Taliban.
"While Afghanistan has achieved some progress on anti-corruption ... real change remains elusive and political will, in particular, remains doubtful," the report said.
The Pentagon said the population supports the Kabul-based government in only 29 of the 121 Afghan districts considered most strategically important in the war effort.
A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said "a majority of the people are on the fence" in those areas.
"The objective is to move those people who are on the fence in the direction of the government," the official added.
Karzai has riled Washington in recent weeks by accusing Western countries and officials of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan, and by saying there was a fine line between cooperation and occupation.
The two countries have since sought to play down tensions, with U.S. President Barack Obama recently expressing confidence in Karzai's ability to stabilize his country.
Questions over the relationship come at an awkward time, when U.S.-led forces are preparing the biggest operation of the war to regain full control of the southern city of Kandahar, Karzai's home town and heartland of the Taliban.
PROGRESS AGAINST TALIBAN
The report cited a lack of trainers for Afghan police and army forces that could cast doubt on U.S. plans to hand over security authority to the Afghans. Obama wants Afghan forces to begin taking over security responsibility so U.S. troops can start a gradual withdrawal in mid-2011.
But the Pentagon also noted that Taliban insurgents were coming under "unprecedented pressure" leading to tension and sporadic dips in morale.
"From the insurgents' perspective, this strain has been compounded by the recent high-profile arrests of several Pakistan-based insurgent leaders by Pakistani authorities and removal of many Afghanistan-based commanders," it said.
It also flagged opinion polls showing that Afghan people believe that their security situation was improving, despite an increase in violence.
"After a number of years of things moving in the wrong direction ... we are no longer moving in the wrong direction and there are signs we are moving in the right direction," the senior U.S. defense official told reporters at the Pentagon.
Recent arrests by Pakistan of Afghan Taliban leaders, including the group's No. 2, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, have "increased insurgent leaders' concern over the security of their safe havens" and created financial and logistical problems, the report said.
The senior U.S. defense official said the arrests have produced "a lot of concerned chatter" among Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan, but added, "I've not seen anything to indicate ... that there is a leadership crisis in the Taliban."
(Editing by Will Dunham)