WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration issued its third progress report on Afghanistan and Pakistan on Tuesday, concluding that the U.S. strategy is showing progress and forces are on schedule to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July. The challenge, according to the administration, is to make these gains last over the long term.
"Specific components of our strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan are working well, and there are notable operational gains," the report says. "While the strategy is showing progress across all three assessed areas of al-Qa'ida, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable."
"In Afghanistan, we are confronting the inherent challenges of a war-torn nation working to restore basic stability and security in the face of a resilient insurgency that finds shelter in a neighboring sanctuary," the report continues.
The report, which the president sent to congressional leaders, covers the period from July 1, 2010 to Dec. 31, 2010. Notably, however, it looks at progress made on eight key objectives during the post-reporting period, from Jan. 1, 2011 to March 2011, as well.
On Afghanistan, the administration reports that it is still on track to keep to the President's withdrawal timeline, even though parts of the Afghan government -- including the electoral process -- remain "weak" at many levels.
"Overall, Afghan governance capacity continues to increase at the national level, and to a more limited extent at the provincial level," the report says. "However, key district and provincial positions remain vacant or filled by unqualified individuals. Recruiting is difficult amid perceptions of poor security in certain areas."
Violence, unfortunately, is expected to rise in the coming months as well.
"A recent rise in high-profile suicide attacks suggests that the 2011 'fighting season' has begun and that violence will again begin to increase from the relative seasonal lull of January and February," the report says. "In addition, this trend could reflect a shift in Taliban tactics against softer government, ANSF, and civilian targets. Whatever the reason, this shift has resulted in a spike in civilian casualties in recent weeks."
Gen. David Petraeus issued a similar warning recently, saying intelligence estimates indicate that this summer will be as "violent or perhaps even more violent" than last summer.
The report also indicates that the increased presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan may have prompted the Taliban to resort to its more dangerous tactics, writing that "the shift in the Taliban's greater use of murder and intimidation tactics reflects an insurgency under the pressure of a more substantive coalition military campaign."
Pakistan remains one of the keys to achieving the U.S. goal of disrupting, dismantling and defeating al Qaeda and its allies in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Indeed, while the United States believes that it has made significant inroads into defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan, consolidating those gains will require working with Pakistan to eliminate sanctuaries for extremist networks -- a strategy that will in turn require both significant developmental assistance and the use of military force.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to host the foreign ministers from both Afghanistan and Pakistan for another session of the U.S.-Afghanistan-Pakistan Trilateral dialogue in the coming months. Progress in the relationship with Pakistan, according to the report, has been "substantial, but also uneven" over the past year.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that both the U.S. and Afghan governments agree U.S. forces should remain in the country even after the 2014 date currently slated for the end of combat operations.
"Obviously it would be a small fraction of the presence that we have today, but I think we're willing to do that," Gates said. "My sense is, they are interested in having us do that."
Similarly, Tuesday's report notes that beyond this target date, the "United States will continue to support Afghanistan's development and security as a strategic partner, just as the NATO-Afghanistan partnership affirms the broader and enduring international community support to Afghanistan.