WASHINGTON Efforts to improve governance in Afghanistan are bearing fruit in areas where a troop surge has driven back the Taliban but more work is needed to sustain progress as Washington prepares to thin troops next year, a U.S. official said on Thursday.
"It's clear to us that within the security bubbles created by the sacrifice of Afghan and coalition forces, we've made a great deal of progress," said Henry Ensher, the top foreign civilian official for four key southern provinces, including the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar.
U.S. commanders say President Barack Obama's decision in late 2009 to pour an extra 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, bringing U.S. forces to almost 100,000, has chased the Taliban out of some areas and allowed reconstruction to take root.
"It will be critical during this time period -- the winter -- that we use this period of reduced violence to ensure that we're making gains in governance ... so that we're able to hold that progress if there is increased violence later in the year," he told reporters in a video briefing from Afghanistan.
Ensher said residents of southern Afghanistan, where U.S. officials have touted their military success in 2010, were forming local councils and were beginning to engage with their local leaders in ways that for years were made impossible by Taliban intimidation and poor security.
Militant activity typically subsides during the winter. U.S. officials hope this spring's fighting season will reveal a weakened insurgency as they rush to show progress ahead of July 2011, when Obama plans to start bringing home troops and move toward ending the long and unpopular war.
Afghan and western leaders hope Afghan forces will control security by the end of 2014, even as they acknowledge that corruption and poor governance in Afghanistan, and militant sanctuaries in Pakistan, will be an obstacle.
Experts say bolstering governance in Afghanistan, where militants chased many local officials out of office and where government agencies fail to provide many Afghans with basic services, will be a linchpin for security.
Building up Afghans' trust in the government would diminish support for the Taliban, which has proved a resilient adversary that expanded in 2010 to new areas of Afghanistan.
The White House has not said how quickly it will remove troops or from where. But as other NATO nations look to end their combat missions, many analysts question whether Afghan forces will be able to fill those gaps any time soon.
Ensher said civilian officials in Afghanistan -- part of a reconstruction, training and aid effort that has cost some $56 billion since 2002 -- would work to continue such progress even if violence picks up as expected in the summer months.
(Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by John O'Callaghan)