By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
As President Obama prepares to formally authorize the April deployment of two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan, perhaps as early as this week, no issue other than the U.S. economy appears as bleak to his administration as the seven-year Afghan war and the regional challenges that surround it.
A flurry of post-inauguration activity -- presidential meetings with top diplomatic and military officials, the appointment of a high-level Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy and the start of a White House-led strategic review -- was designed to show forward motion and resolve, senior administration officials said.
But newly installed officials describe a situation on the ground that is far more precarious than they had anticipated, along with U.S. government departments that are poorly organized to implement the strategic outline that Obama presented last week to his National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
With a 60-day deadline, tied to an April 3 NATO summit, Obama has called for a more regional outlook and a more narrowly focused Afghanistan policy that sets priorities among counterinsurgency and development goals. "The president . . . wants to hear from the uniformed leadership and civilian advisers as to what the situation is and their thoughts as to the way forward," a senior administration official said. "But he has also given pretty direct guidance."
The problem confronting the administration is how to fill in Obama's broad strokes while fighting a war that, by all accounts, is going badly. "It could take quite a long time to look at all the various aspects of this," the senior official said. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates predicted last week that the war will be "a long slog" with an uncertain outcome. Richard C. Holbrooke, the new Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy, who left yesterday for his first visit to the region, expects to spend weeks gathering information before he has much advice to give.
Meanwhile, the senior official acknowledged, "the world moves, obviously."
The two new U.S. brigades are set to arrive in Afghanistan in late April, with another planned to depart in August. But even with what is expected to be more than 30,000 additional U.S. troops this year -- bringing the U.S.-NATO total in Afghanistan to nearly 90,000 -- the international force will be insufficient to secure much of the country.
With the spring combat season near, the Taliban has rapidly increased its sophistication and reach. Neither the money nor the manpower is currently available to train and maintain an Afghan National Army that is expected to begin taking over security missions. Afghan elections are scheduled for summer, but U.S. officials see few viable alternatives to the ineffectual president, Hamid Karzai. Efforts to stem cultivation of opium poppies and the narcotics trade that lines Taliban and government pockets have made little discernible progress.
Nearly $60 billion ($32 billion of it from the United States) has already been spent on reconstruction programs in Afghanistan -- more than during five years of failed reconstruction in Iraq -- but such efforts remain "fragmented" and "lack coherence," according to U.S. government auditors. "I fear there are major weaknesses in strategy," retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, said in a report released Friday.
Across the border in Pakistan, meanwhile, U.S. military officials are anxiously eyeing a map on which extremist gains are rapidly spreading eastward, toward major population centers, as the Taliban and al-Qaeda solidify their hold on the western frontier and form alliances with domestic terrorists. Islamabad's relations with neighboring India, a fellow nuclear power, remain tense after November's terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
Officials described Obama's overall approach to what the administration calls "Af-Pak" as a refusal to be rushed, using words such as "rigor" and "restraint." "We know we're going to get [criticism] for taking our time," said a senior official, one of several in the administration and the military who would discuss the issue only on the condition of anonymity.
While acknowledging the difficulties that the Bush administration faced, Obama officials dismiss the first seven years of Afghanistan war policy, when that conflict took a back seat to the war in Iraq, as reactive, ad hoc and without what one called "a very keen sense of what the goal was."
Obama has ordered up a plan for diplomatic outreach to Iran and others in the region. Afghanistan and Pakistan are to be treated as a single theater of war and diplomacy, even as stability becomes a higher priority than democracy in Afghanistan and as the U.S. relationship with Pakistan is expanded and deepened.
The administration will also seek a new compact with hesitant European and other partners in the war effort, promising new leadership and focus and expecting more resources and commitment. And Obama wants to get beyond the lip service long paid to balance and coordination between the U.S. diplomatic and military services.
Senior administration officials described their approach to Pakistan -- as a major U.S. partner under serious threat of internal collapse -- as fundamentally different from the Bush administration's focus on the country as a Taliban and al-Qaeda "platform" for attacks in Afghanistan and beyond. But the officials acknowledged that a comprehensive Pakistan policy will take time and money. The administration will seek early congressional action on a "rebalanced" assistance program -- introduced in the Senate last summer by then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. and co-sponsored by then-Sen. Obama -- that will triple economic aid and condition military assistance with benchmarks for progress in combating extremists.
The president will get little pushback on his broad goals from the military or civilian leaders. A newly completed review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff echoes his call for a broader approach to the region and better-defined objectives in Afghanistan. "We need a comprehensive strategy, not just the military side," Adm. Michael Mullen, the Joint Chiefs chairman, said in an interview Monday. "What has to be different is how we approach the future."
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command chief whose military responsibilities stretch from the Mediterranean to Pakistan, is compiling strategic recommendations based on reports from his own team of dozens of military and civilian experts. Although less immediately concerned about the fine points of a comprehensive new strategy than the need to move quickly to secure Afghan population centers, Petraeus has already visited central Asian states bordering Afghanistan and supports more extensive diplomatic outreach. He has ordered the Afghanistan-Pakistan portion of his Centcom review to be completed by next week, when it, too, will be given to the White House.
Holbrooke, who reports directly to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, was said to be appalled not only at the walls that still separate military and civilian efforts but also at compartmentalization within the department itself, where separate task forces deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Provincial Reconstruction Teams that are on the front lines of U.S. assistance in Afghanistan are run and still largely staffed by the military.
Obama's deadline for a new overall strategy, set at a Jan. 23 meeting of the National Security Council, coincides with the NATO summit at which he will "come face to face" with allies "looking at him for his perspective on where he's taking the U.S. effort," a senior official said.
National security adviser James L. Jones is in charge of the effort, aided by Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute. Lute has been retained in the post of White House coordinator for Afghanistan and Iraq that he occupied in the Bush administration, to ensure that "we were not going to drop any balls," an official said.
"The policies will change -- that's the purpose of the reviews," he said, "but the mechanisms had to be in place" for ongoing operations. "This wasn't coming into office in 1993, when the world was a much calmer place. We've got two active wars and 200,000 people serving overseas. . . . It's very hard in a transition from the outside to know what is moving."
To keep the balls in play, the official said, "it makes sense to think about tranches of decisions that have to be reached" sooner rather than later on the road toward a comprehensive new strategy.
The administration has already given a green light to continuing CIA-operated attacks by unmanned Predator aircraft against "high-value" al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in western Pakistan. The Pakistani government has agreed to the strikes, despite overwhelming public disapproval. But after the first Obama-authorized Predator attack last week, Pakistani officials said, Islamabad complained in a private diplomatic note that U.S. intelligence was bad and that civilians were the primary casualties.
Officials would not comment on whether Obama has reissued a covert action "finding," signed by President George W. Bush last summer, that authorized ground raids into Pakistan by military Special Operations units working with the CIA. There has been no known ground operation since September, however, and the advisability of such raids is a point of disagreement between Petraeus -- who considers any tactical gain on the ground to be not worth the strategic risk of a massive popular backlash in Pakistan -- and the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Meanwhile, the approach of the warm weather "fighting season" in Afghanistan imposes its own decision deadlines. "I worry a great deal about how much time we have," Mullen said. Additional U.S. and NATO efforts this spring may be able to hold the line against new Taliban advancement, but "if you're just staying flat," he said, "the situation is getting worse."