By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 9, 2008
The White House has launched an urgent review of Afghanistan policy, fast-tracked for completion in the next several weeks, amid growing concern that the administration lacks a comprehensive strategy for the foundering war there and as intelligence officials warn of a rapidly worsening situation on the ground.
Underlying the deliberations is a nearly completed National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan and the Pakistan-based extremists fighting there. Analysts have concluded that reconstituted elements of al-Qaeda and the resurgent Taliban are collaborating with an expanding network of militant groups, making the counterinsurgency war infinitely more complicated.
As the U.S. presidential election approaches, senior officials have expressed worry that the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan is so tenuous that it may fall apart while a new set of U.S. policymakers settles in. Others believe a more comprehensive, airtight road map for the way ahead would limit the new president's options.
Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, President Bush's senior adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, has told Pentagon, intelligence and State Department officials to return to the basic questions: What are our objectives in Afghanistan? What can we hope to achieve? What are our resources? What is our allies' role? What do we know about the enemy? How likely is it that weak Afghan and Pakistani governments will rise to the occasion?
Alarms were first sounded early this year, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returned from a trip to Afghanistan in early February -- her first in two years -- convinced that the war there was heading downhill. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates shared her pessimism, telling Congress that same week that Taliban insurgents had adopted more dangerous tactics, that the U.S.-led military coalition was disorganized, and that international development efforts were failing because "there is no overarching strategy."
But seven months would pass before the administration, distracted by issues as serious as the Iraq war and as far afield as the Olympics, was seized with the urgency to put a new strategy in place. Although stopgap measures were taken during the spring and summer -- the temporary deployment of 3,500 more Marines, an appeal for more NATO troops and presidential authorization for U.S. commando raids into Pakistan -- the downward spiral continued.
U.S. military deaths and enemy attacks this year have risen to the highest levels of the nearly seven-year war. Hopes have faded that a new Pakistani government would seize the initiative against extremist sanctuaries, and that a new U.N. coordinator would bring order to the chaos of the multibillion-dollar Afghan reconstruction program.
Heading into the review, Gates has already determined that the United States must take a more forceful lead in strategy and combat from NATO forces in Afghanistan. Bush has pledged thousands more U.S. troops and last week the long-bifurcated command structure in Afghanistan was changed to put NATO and U.S. forces under the same American general.
But these and other initiatives still lack a broad strategic framework. Military Special Operations forces and CIA operatives, now conducting regular secret incursions into western Pakistan, need to be incorporated into the larger effort, along with new Iraq-tested intelligence and surveillance platforms. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and Gen. David H. Petraeus, incoming head of the U.S. Central Command, have undertaken their own strategy reviews.
"We're not sure how they all interrelate," a defense official said. The White House review, he said, "is an attempt after the fact to have them all feed into the NSC [National Security Council] product."
Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain are unlikely to question a major new U.S. commitment; both have called for an increase in U.S. troops. And unlike Iraq, where lawmakers have argued for years over funding and troop levels, there is bipartisan backing for doing more, and doing it quickly, in Afghanistan.
Senior officials involved in the intelligence assessment and the White House review declined to discuss the issue on the record during conversations over the past two weeks.
Officials described the Pakistan-based extremist network, which the Pentagon calls "the syndicate," as a loose alliance of three elements. Kashmiri militants, constrained by recent agreements between Pakistan and India, have "leaned over" to assist a domestic terrorist campaign launched by homegrown extremists often referred to as the "Pakistani Taliban," one official said. The Afghan Taliban -- itself divided into several groups -- is based in Pakistan but focused on Afghanistan, as are the forces led by warlords Jalauddin Haqqani and his son Siraj, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, among others. Traditional tribal groups in Pakistan's western, Federally Administered Tribal Areas -- FATA -- are a third element. Those groups are said to be focused primarily on keeping the Pakistani military and government out of their areas, and assisting the Afghan-oriented parts of the network.
Al-Qaeda, composed largely of Arabs and, increasingly, Uzbeks, Chechens and other Central Asians, is described as sitting atop the structure, providing money and training to the others in exchange for sanctuary. "They are oriented to just keeping the Pakistani military and government out of their areas," the intelligence official said. "They help the groups who are interested in Afghanistan."
"There is competition between and among them," a U.S. counterterrorism official said. But their interests increasingly overlap and "they understand the need to support one another."
Intelligence officials said that cooperation among the militant groups was bolstered by the hands-off attitude Pakistan's new civilian coalition government initially adopted toward the FATA last spring. When urgent U.S. appeals to the military and government failed and the coalition moved to oust President Pervez Musharraf, Washington's main Pakistani ally, those who had long advocated stronger U.S. action inside Pakistan finally prevailed with Bush.
Authorization for commando raids coincided with stepped-up attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft flown across the border from Afghanistan. The administration concluded that the ground raids were legal under the self-defense provisions of the U.N. charter, an interpretation that a U.N. official said was questionable.
"The tempo is pretty steady and they want to keep it up," said an individual with close contacts among the U.S. Special Forces units participating in cross-border operations.
The intelligence assessment is also highly pessimistic about the prospects that Afghan President Hamid Karzai can or will move forcefully to stem corruption inside his government or that the flourishing drug trade can be significantly reversed.
Despite the commitment to increase U.S. troop levels, Gates has publicly warned that a larger foreign military "footprint" in Afghanistan may prove counterproductive. Afghanistan hopes to double the size of its army -- to 134,000 -- in the next two years. But maintaining such a force, Gates told Congress, would cost $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year -- at least three times Afghanistan's total revenue for 2008.
In recent months, the Pentagon has sent emissaries around the world with a proposition: If they do not want to fight in Afghanistan, they should at least be prepared to pay for those who do. "There is a real effort made to figure out which among the nations not contributing forces can pony up," a defense official said.
Just before the recent change in government in Japan, he said by way of example, "our Asia guys went over there and said: 'You don't want to send forces? We understand. How about contributing $20 billion over the next five years?' "
The Japanese, he said, "swallowed their chopsticks."
Staff writer Walter Pincus contributed to this report.