WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While the White House review of the Afghan war last week reported a surge in U.S. troops has pushed Taliban militants out of some key areas, it also underscored that fighting may be the easy part in Afghanistan.
The review, despite a cautiously optimistic tone, recognized that much remains to be done to improve Afghan governance and persuade Pakistan to end militant safe-havens as U.S. President Barack Obama aims to start bringing troops home next year.
"Wherever you put in a large U.S. troop presence, there will be increased security," said Tarak Barkawi, a lecturer in war studies at Britain's Cambridge University.
But on governance and militant sanctuaries, Barkawi said, "we are not winning but simply holding the court at great and unsustainable political and financial cost."
Obama is under pressure to show results in the first half of 2011 so he can start reducing a U.S. force of close to 100,000 soldiers in July, gradually putting Afghan forces in the lead and reducing the U.S. role in the nine-year-old conflict.
The number of foreign troops killed in 2010 passed 700 this weekend, marking an ugly end to the bloodiest year since the Taliban was toppled in 2001 and further fueling unease in NATO nations already taking steps to end their combat operations.
Experts believe it will take years to build an effective, credible government that can provide basic services in Afghanistan, where corruption and the lack a functional justice system have driven many villagers into the arms of the Taliban.
Last week, the International Committee of the Red Cross said violence had made it harder for aid groups to help Afghans than at any time in 30 years.
The struggle to improve governance is made more difficult by the strained relationship with President Hamid Karzai, who won another term in 2009 polls marred by widespread fraud.
But the Obama administration, which sent hundreds more diplomats, farm specialists and development experts in its 'civilian surge' this year, says the United States has only begun to give Afghan governance the attention in deserves.
"The last year in many ways, on both the civilian and military sides, has been about getting a lot of the instruments in place," said Alex Thier, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"Our understanding of how to succeed in this environment has taken some really big steps forward ... I wish we had been at this for nine years," he said.
The United States, which has already spent at least $56 billion on rebuilding Afghanistan, plans to channel more money through the Afghan government in 2011 to beef up weak ministries in what Thier called a more "realistic" approach.
It will also seek to tailor aid and governance activities to locally communities in a fractured, decentralized country.
Both moves, however, bear risks of corruption and waste. Even nine years after aid efforts began, a special inspector general warned this week that existing controls are insufficient to ensure U.S. taxpayers are getting what they pay for.
'THE HARDEST PART OF THIS PROBLEM'
While the White House said Pakistan had taken encouraging steps in cracking down on militants who fuel violence in Afghanistan, stationing 140,000 troops on its western border, Obama said "progress has not come fast enough" for his liking.
It is not the first time U.S. officials have made such complaints about Pakistan -- which Washington has sought to coerce since September 11 with a mix of aid and threats -- making only selective efforts against insurgents within its border.
"Pakistan, as always, remains the hardest part of this problem," Bruce Riedel, a terrorism scholar who co-chaired the U.S. Afghanistan policy review last year, wrote last week.
Yet the White House review laid out no public plan for increasing U.S. leverage over nuclear-armed Pakistan, which controls a key supply route for U.S. military equipment, and it is unclear what could prompt Pakistan to change course.
Amid such skepticism, Washington has widened drone attacks in Pakistan, most of them in the North Waziristan area known to be a sanctuary for al Qaeda and Taliban militants.
Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said U.S. strategy had been focused on providing assistance and building trust in U.S.-Pakistani ties.
"But unless we see some dividends from that strategy, we might have to reconsider the other tools we have and the biggest tool we have is aid," she said.
In October, the State Department announced plans to seek $2 billion in new military aid for Pakistan, money that would complement billions of dollars in existing civilian aid.
The White House, fearful that withholding aid could backfire, is not publicly considering such a move.