WASHINGTON - Even as President Barack Obama leads an intense debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, administration officials say the United States is falling far short of his goals to fight the country's endemic corruption, create a functioning government and legal system, and train a police force currently riddled with incompetence.
Interviews with senior administration and military officials and recent reports assessing Afghanistan's progress show that nearly seven months after Obama announced a stepped-up civilian effort to bolster his deployment of 17,000 additional American troops, many civil institutions are deteriorating as much as the country's security.
Afghanistan is now so dangerous, administration officials said, that many aid workers cannot travel outside the capital, Kabul, to advise farmers on crops, a key part of Obama's announcement in March that he was deploying hundreds of additional civilians to work in the country. The judiciary is so weak that Afghans increasingly turn to a shadow Taliban court system because, a senior military official said, "a lot of the rural people see the Taliban justice as at least something."
Administration officials describe Obama as impatient with the civilian progress so far.
The disputed Aug. 20 Afghan election has laid bare the ineffectiveness of the government of President Hamid Karzai, administration officials said, and frozen steps toward reform.
The country's electoral commission has determined that Karzai appeared to be the outright winner, but the evidence of fraud and irregularities is so overwhelming that a second round of voting may be required. Even before the election, a January 2009 Defense Department report assessing progress in Afghanistan concluded that "building a fully competent and independent Afghan government will be a lengthy process that will last, at a minimum, decades."
Administration officials blamed the election for many of the setbacks and said a resolution to the vote - which some fear will not happen until next spring - would put them in a better position to move forward on civilian reforms.
"It was always regarded as hard to do, and it was very much keyed to having a successful election," said Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who coordinated the Obama administration's initial review of Afghanistan policy in the spring. "Instead, we had a fiasco."
The questions within the White House over the Afghan government's dysfunction have to some extent been obscured by the loud public debate in recent weeks about troop levels, whether to increase them and by how much.
Officials said over the weekend that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, had prepared options that include a maximum troop increase of about 80,000, a number highly unlikely to be seriously considered by the White House. Much of the official focus has been on a lower option that the general presented, for 40,000 additional troops.
Administration officials said there had been progress on Afghan education and access to health care, and claim some success for a nascent anti-narcotics campaign that has phased out efforts to eradicate poppy crops, used for opium, and stepped up interdiction and incentives for Afghan farmers to grow wheat. Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, is to promote the effort in a trip to Afghanistan in December, officials said.
State Department officials also said they were close to their target of having 974 aid workers in Afghanistan by year's end as part of what they call Obama's civilian "surge." At present, they said, 575 civilians are on the ground.
"From the very start, there was an understanding that we need to move quickly," said Jacob J. Lew, the deputy secretary of state overseeing the civilian deployment. "We feel very good about the people we're sending out. They're motivated, they're prepared, they're brave."
But Henry Crumpton, a former top CIA and State Department official who is an informal adviser to McChrystal, called those stepped-up efforts inadequate.
"Right now, the overwhelming majority of civilians are in Kabul, and the overwhelming majority never leave their compounds," said Crumpton, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan. He said very little aid actually gets to the Afghan people.
Anthony H. Cordesman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who has advised McChrystal, said that while progress had been made since 2001, when American-led forces toppled the Taliban, the overall effort "has been a nightmare."
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Other voices on Afghanistan
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democratic head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Sunday that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is in "serious jeopardy" and needs more troops to turn the tide against an increasingly potent Taliban insurgency.
Sen. Carl Levin, Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged a more methodical approach that begins with crafting a new, comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan. "I'm saying at this time, don't send more combat troops," said Levin, D-Mich., who wants the emphasis to be on strengthening Afghanistan's own security forces so they can bear a greater share of the security burden.
Sen. John McCain said Sunday that President Barack Obama will make a huge error if he does not substantially increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He said it is folly to think the Taliban can be allowed to grow stronger in Afghanistan without benefiting al-Qaida, the terrorist network that attacked the United States in 2001.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said Sunday that if President Obama asks for more troops in Afghanistan to fulfill a request by commanders there, he expects Republicans to support the action.
Kai Eide, the head of the United Nations' Afghanistan mission, acknowledged Sunday that widespread electoral fraud had occurred. However, he strongly contested allegations by his former deputy that he had engaged in a coverup of vote-rigging by supporters of President Hamid Karzai. He also expressed confidence that a partial recount, carried out by Afghan officials and under review by a U.N.-backed body, would yield an acceptable result.