Washington, Feb 3: The dreaded Haqqani network remains the most capable threat to US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, planning and executing high-profile attacks, the top American General in the war-torn nation has said.
Commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John F Campbell, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee, said the al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened, but as evidenced by the recent discovery of its camp on the southern border, the group is certainly not extinct.
"The Haqqani network remains the most capable threat to US and Coalition forces, planning and executing the most violent high profile attacks in Kabul," he said.
Haqqani network, which is linked to al-Qaeda, has been blamed for several deadly attacks against Western and Indian interests in Afghanistan, including the 2008 bombing of the Indian mission in Kabul.
Campbell said 70 per cent of Afghan territory is under government control, while Taliban controls only two per cent.
"Of the 407 district centres, eight (or two per cent) are under insurgent control. We assess that another 18 (or 4 per cent) are under what we call insurgent influence," he said.
Often, these district centres are in remote and sparsely populated areas that security forces are not able to access very often in force, he noted. Additionally, at any given time there may be up to 94 district centres (around 23 per cent) that we view as "at risk," he said.
While over the last eight years the Afghan security forces have made advancements, beginning as an unorganised collection of militia and developing into a modern security force with many of the systems and processes of an advanced military, a lot needs to be done, he said.
"Capability gaps still exist in fixed and rotary-wing aviation, combined arms operations, intelligence collection and dissemination, and maintenance," he said.
One of the greatest tactical challenges for the Afghan security forces has been overcoming the Afghan Air Force's extremely limited organic close air support capability.
"Admittedly, we began building the Afghan Air Force late and are constrained by the time it takes to build human capital," he underscored.
Of the view that reconciliation is the path needed to obtain a negotiated settlement and end the conflict in Afghanistan, Campbell said current reconciliation efforts are an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned initiative.
Noting that it has been over a year since the formation of the National Unity Government, Campbell said it has faced institutional and political difficulties, yet it can lay claim to some meaningful reform and progress during its first year.
"The unity government may be fragile, but it is holding despite being challenged, it is making continued progress, and building momentum to create an increasingly viable future," he said.