Every 180 days the Pentagon has to submit a report to the US Congress covering progress towards security and stability in Afghanistan. The latest report, Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan, covering the period 1 Oct 2009 to 31 Mar 2010, can be found here.
The report states: "The continuing decline in stability in Afghanistan, described in the last report, has leveled off in many areas over the last three months of this reporting period. While the overall trend of violence throughout the country increased over the same period a year ago, much of this can be ascribed to increased International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) activity. Polls consistently illustrate that Afghans see security as improved from a year ago. At the same time violence is sharply above the seasonal average for the previous year – an 87% increase from February 2009 to March 2010."
So it's a mixed message. Afghans apparently say security is better than it was, but violence is definitely up.
ISAF divides Afghanistan into districts, of which it identifies 80 as being 'Key Terrain' districts - defined as areas that afford a marked advantage to whichever party controls them. They are areas where most of the population lives and which contain centres of economic productivity, infrastructure and commerce routes. These districts largely follow the national 'ring road' that links Kabul, Kandahar and Herat.
In addition, ISAF identifies 41 'Area of Interest' districts, defined as areas that exert influence on the Key Terrain districts.
It is these 121 districts that are the focus of most of the ISAF and Afghan military activity, although these forces can only operate in 48 districts in total.
The report notes that the population sympathises with or supports the Afghan government in only 29 out of 121 Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts - just 24 per cent, which is perhaps the most significant figure in this report.
The report also shows that the Taliban are no slouches when it comes to reassessing their military strategy. Taliban commanders responded to the US troop surge by ordering their fighters to avoid head-on clashes with US-led forces and instead stepping up their use of roadside bombs or IEDs:
"This reporting period has seen insurgent combatants adhere closely to their leaders' intent with a 236 percent increase in IEDs noted across the country and a marked increase in stand-off tactics compared to the same period last year".
The report also raises questions about the effectiveness of the Marjah offensive, saying the Afghan government has been slow to bring in the local administrators and development projects critical to winning over local people.
"The insurgents' tactic of re-infiltrating the cleared areas to perform executions has played a role in dissuading locals from siding with the Afghan government, which has complicated efforts to introduce effective governance," says the report.
It notes that the Taliban's "operational capabilities and operational reach are qualitatively and geographically expanding", adding that the "strength and ability of (insurgent-run) shadow governance to discredit the authority and legitimacy of the Afghan government is increasing."