WASHINGTON — The southern Afghan province of Helmand, part of the Pashtun heartland from which the Taliban emerged in the 1990s, has become the most violent and narcotics-plagued region in the country by far, according to the first formal Pentagon report to Congress on the Afghan conflict.
Security for Helmand is the chief responsibility of Britain, which has about 8,200 troops in the province. Since British forces took command of the province two years ago, 103 of their soldiers have been killed.
In March, the U.S. sent 2,400 Marines to the southernmost part of the province to assist the British, and the Marines have come under heavy attack.
Because of the violence, the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based Marines could have their seven-month tour extended by a month, although Pentagon officials emphasized Friday that U.S. Army Gen. David D. McKiernan, the overall commander in Afghanistan, has made no formal request.
"The Marines have been highly successful," said a senior Pentagon official, who requested anonymity when discussing internal decision-making. "The question will be how do we build upon that to get to the stability and hold endgame."
Any extension of the Marines' tour is likely to be controversial. Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said they will not stay more than seven months. And Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, has said any deployment past October would put unacceptable stress on his ground forces.
The report, submitted to Congress on Friday, paints a bleak picture of the prospects for containing violence in Afghanistan this year, confirming previous assessments that the Taliban has succeeded in regrouping in many areas.
Though it cites gains by Afghan and North Atlantic Treaty Organization military forces in 2007, the report acknowledges that the Taliban is "likely to maintain or even increase the scope" of its terrorist attacks and bombings this year.
According to the report, the number of attacks in Helmand during the first 10 weeks of the year reached nearly 2,500, more than the three next-most violent provinces combined. In addition, it says that Helmand now accounts for 53% of all poppies grown in Afghanistan, which has become the world's largest producer of opium.
According to a military official who briefed reporters on the new report's findings, the violence in Helmand is the result of the continuing shortage of troops who make up the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force.
"That province had a lot of Taliban in it because of the resource shortfalls of ISAF forces," said the official, who was not authorized by the Pentagon to speak publicly. "The Taliban operated there, so hence they could attack there."
The report also says Afghanistan's stability continues to be hampered by the actions of neighboring countries, such as Pakistan's decision to enter into cease-fire negotiations with militant groups near the Afghan border.
In addition, the report says Iran has been supplying Afghan insurgents with weaponry since at least 2006, though it adds that the assistance has "not proven militarily significant" on the battlefield.