WASHINGTON The U.S. military believes only a quarter of Afghans in key areas support President Hamid Karzai's government and that political will to tackle corruption "remains doubtful," according to a Pentagon assessment released on Wednesday.
The 152-page Pentagon report to Congress underscores the extent of concerns about Karzai's ability to prove himself a viable partner to NATO efforts to turn the tide in more than eight-year-old conflict.
It also comes just ahead of Karzai's May 10-14 visit to Washington, where he will meet U.S. President Barack Obama and likely attempt to soothe concerns about the effectiveness of a costly deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. forces.
"While Afghanistan has achieved some progress on anti-corruption, particular with regard to legal and institutional reforms, real change remains elusive and political will, in particular, remains doubtful," it said.
It warned that public perceptions of the government on corruption are "decidedly negative," and that blame extended to both international forces and the international community.
The report said the population only supports Karzai's government in 29 of the 121 Afghan districts considered most strategically important in the war effort.
"Perceptions of corruption within the Afghan government, the inability of the government to provide essential services, and exploitative behavior of some government officials and (Afghan security forces) are contributing to the success of the insurgents' campaign," it said.
At the same time, the report 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.
Karzai sparked a dispute with Washington recently by accusing Western countries and officials of perpetrating election fraud in Afghanistan, in comments the White House called disturbing and untrue, and the State Department called preposterous.
Karzai has also said there was a fine line between cooperation and occupation, and that Afghans had to see that their government was not made up of "puppets.
Tensions between Karzai and the West come at a particularly awkward time, when the U.S.-led force is planning 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.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Adam Entous; Editing by Eric Walsh)