Obama envisions no major changes in Afghan strategy

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.

The issue, the senior official said, is determining "what amount and what type of corruption feeds the Taliban and undercuts our capacity and any Afghan government's capacity to govern" versus what is culturally "endemic" in Afghan society. Senior officials, including Obama, have publicly insisted the United States is not trying to create "Shangri-la" or "Switzerland" in Afghanistan. The goal, they say, is a stable society that will not permit al-Qaeda to reestablish its presence there.

But military commanders have expressed confusion in recent interviews about what that means on the ground, particularly in terms of where to draw the line in their relationships with Afghan power brokers at all levels.

The administration has decided to acquiesce to Karzai's demands for more Afghan control of the special investigators and prosecutors, and to try to work with and constrain, rather than dethrone, power brokers such as Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother. "It's a nightmare," a senior European official, whose country's troops are part of the international coalition in Afghanistan, said of Ahmed Wali Karzai and other allegedly corrupt officials who operate with apparent impunity. "You can't condone it, but by trying to stop it are we helping or hindering our overall goals?"

President Karzai has repeatedly intervened in attempted prosecutions of those close to him. "The question is how to keep Karzai from trying to screw you rather than helping you," the European official said.

Pay for Afghan security forces has been increased and training has been modified to reduce, if not eliminate, demands for bribes for transactions as simple as passage through security checkpoints. U.S. and coalition civilians are urging Afghan officials to improve the effectiveness of local governing and judicial bodies whose greed and incompetence have led many Afghans to prefer Taliban justice.

Administration officials acknowledge that the flood of U.S. money into Afghanistan - estimated at $100 billion a year in a country whose yearly revenue is barely a tenth of that - has exacerbated corruption. Petraeus has issued new guidelines for military contractors and ordered a review of all existing contracts. They include Afghan security firms whose guarding of U.S. supply convoys, according to congressional investigators, amounts to a protection racket that funds the Taliban as well as local warlords.

Replacing the firms may involve using U.S. forces to guard the convoys, with both monetary and security implications. That is a price the administration has to be willing to pay if necessary, the senior official said.

The administration "adamantly does not want to use the [December] review . . . as a great big rescrub," the European official said. "They want it to be a validation of the strategy and how it's being implemented."

"Frankly, we're in a situation in which our military and diplomatic forces are trying as hard as humanely possible to get a drumbeat of success going that will position us to get some withdrawals" of troops in the coming year, said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.).

Some in Washington have already judged the strategy a failure. Over the past month, a series of reports has emerged from former military and civilian officials and respected think tanks with such titles as "Another Way in Afghanistan: Overcoming the Current Flawed Strategy," and "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." Most advocate sharply lowered expectations and withdrawal of U.S. forces sooner rather than later.

Public opinion polls indicate a gradual loss of confidence in the war effort, but also a willingness to persevere that seems born less of optimism than the lack of a better idea. On Capitol Hill, where concern is growing over the human and economic cost, those advocating withdrawal - including Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold's call for a strict timetable and California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's proposal to revive the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance of Afghan militias - are in the minority.

While a broad bipartisan spectrum of lawmakers differs on the details, most appear willing to give the strategy more time, provided they are brought more fully into the administration's assessment process.

"I think there are ways that the mission can still be refined and defined," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

"They need to tell people like me, here's realistically what we can do about corruption," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of the Armed Services Committee and a reserve Air Force officer who spent part of the summer on duty in Afghanistan.

"In December," Graham said, "I'd like to evaluate in a reasonable way, what have we accomplished? Are we on the right track in [Afghan force] training? What are the benchmarks? So that in July we will all have a common view of what success is."

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