Obama envisions no major changes in Afghan strategy

Early returns suggest that about 40 percent of the country's voters went to the polls Saturday in the nation's second parliamentary election.
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 18, 2010; 3:48 AM

Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes.

This resolve arises amid a flurry of reports from outside experts and former officials who are convinced that the administration's path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and its objectives are unclear. Lawmakers from both parties are insisting that they be given a bigger say in assessing the war's trajectory.

The White House calculus is that the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next year, with the approach of a July deadline President Obama has set for decisions on troop withdrawals and the beginning of the 2012 electoral season.

"The fundamentals are in the place where they should be," a senior administration official said. Any adjustments will be akin to "moving the rabbit ears around a little bit to get better reception," he said. "I don't think we'll be changing the channel come December."

Administration officials hope that acceptable, if not perfect, parliamentary elections in Afghanistan this weekend will buttress their case. Over the next three months, they say they expect measurable military progress in five areas outlined for Obama this week by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, according to several officials authorized to discuss the situation on the condition of anonymity.

Those areas include the elimination of Taliban sanctuaries outside the city of Kandahar and continued targeting of senior and mid-level insurgent leaders by U.S. Special Operations forces, an increase in the disappointing number of Taliban fighters brought into a government reintegration scheme, the development of newly authorized local defense forces, and improvement in the capabilities of Afghanistan's national security forces.

The State Department has its own metrics, which include counting the number of development projects and newly installed local officials, but "that doesn't tell their effectiveness," another official said.

When Obama announced his strategy and additional troop deployments last December, the administration told Congress it would take what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called a "hard look" at whether it was working at the one-year mark. Gates later said officials would be seeking "enough evidence to demonstrate, if you will, the proof of concept . . . that we're headed in the right direction."

Beneath the administration's outward calm, nerves have been frayed this summer by the slow pace of military operations and paucity of uncontested gains against Taliban forces. Reports of Afghan government corruption have been unrelenting, as has the climb in U.S. casualties. Troop deaths have more than doubled since Obama took office - more than 330 this year by early September - along with the size of the U.S. force.

At a Monday meeting with his senior national security advisers, Obama displayed "particularly acute impatience" at "really astounding" casualty figures that are far higher than what was anticipated at the beginning of the year, the senior official said.

The near-collapse of the country's leading bank and President Hamid Karzai's attempts to stop U.S.-backed prosecutions of allegedly corrupt senior Afghan officials have overshadowed what the administration sees as signs of progress, the official said. Not only have the controversies opened the door to congressional efforts to condition funding, "you can't fit them into a story that explains to the American people why we're on a path to fulfill our goals," the senior official said.

At Monday's White House meeting, officials debated whether efforts to stop corruption and graft at every level of Afghan governance have become counterproductive to the overall U.S. mission. In what would amount to a substantive but undeclared, change in strategy, the administration has begun to delineate which elements of the anti-corruption campaign are "mission critical," and which are simply too hard.

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