- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 25, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan issued an assessment of the war Tuesday, saying the military “made impressive progress” last year, while stressing that 2011 is “likely to be tough” as forces work to further boost security.

Gen. David H. Petraeus’ letter to the troops comes hours ahead of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which Mr. Obama is expected to discuss the Afghan war he has expanded with both troops and funding. Mr. Obama has said he hopes to begin drawing down U.S. troops in July, though that is dependent on the state of the battle against the Taliban insurgency.

Gen. Petraeus called 2010 “a year of significant, hard-fought accomplishments,” but he warned in his letter that “the year ahead is likely to be a tough one, too.”

Troops will have to hold onto progress made in Taliban strongholds in the south while working to reverse insurgent advances in the north and mountainous northeast, he said. Violence increased greatly in both of those regions over the past year, apparently because of a Taliban strategy to move forces into less contested areas.

Gen. Petraeus praised security gains in the capital, which has seen fewer large-scale attacks over the past six months, but he added that these gains will need to be expanded into neighboring provinces.

NATO and U.S. officials repeatedly have said they hope the growing Afghan army and police force will be at the forefront of this security push, creating the opportunity for international allies to start bringing troops home. However, the Afghan forces continue to be plagued by high attrition rates, ineffectiveness and corruption even after billions have been poured into programs to bring the security forces up to par.

Gen. Petraeus also addressed the enduring problem of corruption in Afghanistan, where government services are rarely delivered without a number of side payments along the way and politicians regularly pay their constituencies directly for their votes.

“We will have to expand our efforts to help Afghan officials implement President [Hamid] Karzai’s direction to combat corruption and the criminal patronage networks that undermine the development of effective Afghan institutions,” he said. He added that part of fighting corruption is reforming systems of military contracting and procurement that contribute to the problem.

Efforts to root out corruption and cronyism in the Afghan government have been troubled, partly because of a seeming unwillingness on the part of Mr. Karzai to allow prosecutions that touch his family or allies. The presidential election of 2009 and last year’s parliamentary vote have also seen Mr. Karzai pushing to expand his power, sometimes by sidestepping provisions of the constitution and electoral law.

Much of the debate about troop levels and strategy in Afghanistan has centered on whether U.S. forces should be focusing their energy on a long campaign of nation-building or simply on targeted strikes against terrorists.

Gen. Petraeus stressed that the goal of the fight in Afghanistan is to ensure that the country does not again become a sanctuary for al Qaeda or other extremists, but he said that establishing a functioning government is key to meeting that goal.

“Achieving that objective requires that we help Afghanistan develop the ability to secure and govern itself,” he said.


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