National Security Team Delivers Grim Appraisal of Afghanistan War

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 9, 2009

MUNICH, Feb. 8 -- President Obama's national security team gave a dire assessment Sunday of the war in Afghanistan, with one official calling it a challenge "much tougher than Iraq" and others hinting that it could take years to turn around.

U.S. officials said more troops were urgently needed, both from America and its NATO allies, to counter the increasing strength of the Taliban and warlords opposed to the central government in Kabul. They also said new approaches were needed to untangle an inefficient and conflicting array of civilian-aid programs that have wasted billions of dollars.

"NATO's future is on the line here," Richard C. Holbrooke, the State Department's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told attendees at an international security conference here. "It's going to be a long, difficult struggle. . . . In my view, it's going to be much tougher than Iraq."

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, said the war in Afghanistan "has deteriorated markedly in the past two years" and warned of a "downward spiral of security."

In addition to more combat troops, Petraeus called for "a surge in civilian capacity" to help rebuild villages, train local police forces, tackle corruption in the Afghan government and reduce the country's thriving opium trade. He also suggested that the odds of success were low, given that foreign military powers have historically met with defeat in Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan has been known over the years as the graveyard of empires," he said. "We cannot take that history lightly."

The White House is conducting a strategic review of the war in Afghanistan and says it will unveil the results before NATO holds a 60th-anniversary summit in early April.

Obama administration officials have said they expect to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, bringing the total U.S. deployment there to about 66,000. U.S. allies have a combined 32,000 troops in Afghanistan operating under NATO command. NATO officials have pressed European members of the alliance to send more, but few countries have been willing.

Germany, which has 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, the third most of any country, has questioned the need for more combat forces. Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said more attention should be paid to training Afghan forces and to reconstruction projects.

"We won't win with military alone," he said at the conference. "There will be no development without security. But without development, we won't have security, either."

The debate over troops has led to a split within NATO. Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary general, told conference attendees on Saturday that European members of the alliance needed to do more of the "heavy lifting" in Afghanistan.

British Defense Secretary John Hutton openly disagreed with his German counterpart, saying the need for more combat troops was the highest priority in Afghanistan. Reconstruction efforts, he said, would fail if the Taliban remains strong.

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