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Rampant corruption at all levels of the Afghan government and the record pace of "insider attacks" on coalition troops have posed the gravest challenges to the U.S. withdrawal plan and the current commitment to leave behind a substantial force in Afghanistan past 2014, Pentagon leaders said Monday.
The Pentagon issued the report as Gen. John Allen, head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, continues to work on his recommendations to the White House on the next steps toward the withdrawal that is slated to end in 2014.
Some have speculated the U.S. could speed up the withdrawal and remove more troops faster over the next two years. Allen's recommendations had been scheduled to be made by November. However, the Marine Corps four-star is under investigation for an improper relationship with Florida socialite, Jill Kelley.
The Pentagon's semi-annual report is separate from Allen's recommendations. In it, the Defense Department noted an increase in the number of enemy-initiated attacks (EIAs) this year as the U.S. completed the pullout of the 33,000 surge troops and reduced the U.S. military strength to 66,000.
The EIAs were up one percent for the six month period from April through September of this year covered by the report, compared to a nine percent decline in the same six-month period last year.
"The rise is considered the result of an earlier start to the fighting season (spring through fall) as well as a shortened poppy harvest" this year allowing more Taliban fighters to go on the attack rather than spending time working the fields, the report said.
The report gave no specific figures for the number of EIAs, but charts showed that there were nearly 3,500 EIAs in June 2012, the peak month this year, while about 2,600 were recorded in August 2009, the peak month in the year before the surge forces began arriving in Afghanistan.
Despite the uptick in EIAs this year, "overall levels of violence continue to go down," a senior Defense Department official said, citing a decline of about 12 per cent in EIAs over the past three years.
The coalition has blunted Taliban attempts to push back into populated areas, the report said, but "then insurgents remain resilient and determined, and will likely attempt to regain lost ground and influence through continued assassinations, intimidation, high-profile attacks, and the emplacement of improvised explosive devices (IEDs)."
As has been the case for previous reports to Congress going back to the first in 2008, the latest report singled out the bribery, theft and influence peddling taking place throughout the Afghan government, justice system and national security forces as a major factor in impeding the transition underway to allowing Afghans to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
"Widespread corruption continues to limit the effectiveness and legitimacy of the Afghan government," the report said.
Insider attacks in which Afghans in uniform turn their weapons on coalition troops also pose a threat to the willingness of the U.S. and its allies to remain in Afghanistan past 2014, when all coalition combat troops are expected to be withdrawn.
"The rise in insider attacks has the potential to adversely affect the coalition's political landscape," the report said. France has cited insider attacks as a factor in its determination to break ranks with the rest of the coalition and withdraw all of its 3,000 combat troops early in 2013.
The rate of insider attacks has sharply escalated this year with at least 46 such attacks occurring through November, killing a total of 63 coalition troops -- mostly Americans -- and wounding a total of 85, according to an Associated Press count. In 2011, 21 insider attacks killed 35 troops.
"The cause of the majority of insider attacks in 2012 has yet to be determined," the report said, "and sometimes the cause is impossible to determine given that in many cases the attacker is killed during the incident."