WASHINGTON (AFP) - Afghanistan's military is increasingly effective but it will need considerable training and foreign aid beyond the US pullout date of 2014, the Pentagon told Congress on Tuesday.
In a twice-a-year report to lawmakers, the Defence Department pointed to gains made by Afghan forces as they take the lead in conducting security operations across most of the country and battle Taleban insurgents.
"Assessing whether the gains to date will be sustainable will be difficult to do until the exact size and structure of the post-2014 US and Nato presence is determined," said the report, called Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan.
The assessment comes as President Barack Obama and Washington mull the end-game of the 11-year US military engagement in Afghanistan.
There were signs early this month of friction between Mr Obama and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai, with Washington reportedly mulling a faster of withdrawal of troops, or even leaving no forces behind after 2014.
Both options were being seriously considered following a tense teleconference between Mr Obama and Mr Karzai late last month, according to The New York Times, but the Pentagon said Mr Obama was still reviewing options and has yet to make a decision on the size of a possible US presence into 2015.
The idea of a "zero option" - of leaving no troops behind - was first floated by the White House earlier this year.
Half of the 68,000 US troops in Afghanistan are currently set to exit by next February, and Washington and Kabul are negotiating a bilateral security agreement for any future US presence.
Afghan National Security Forces are now conducting "almost all combat operations" and the country's populated areas are increasingly secure, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
But it stressed that in order to contend with the ongoing Taleban threat, the ANSF will need "continued assistance and combat support through the end of the ISAF mandate in December 2014.
"Beyond then it will still require substantial training, advising and assistance - including financial support - to address ongoing shortcomings." Despite painting an overall positive picture for the security forces' ability to maintain order in most parts of the country, the Pentagon said decades-old concerns still haunt Afghanistan's prospects for stability.
"Effective governance, the rule of law and sustainable economic development are all necessary for long-term stability in Afghanistan but multiple factors continue to hinder them, including widespread corruption," it said.