The White House's report on Af-Pak: Hold the optimism

By David Ignatius
Friday, October 8, 2010

What's notable about the new White House report on Afghanistan and Pakistan sent to Congress this week is its bleak assessment of the security picture. You could almost read President Obama between the lines warning the military: This strategy isn't working the way we hoped. Don't ask me for more troops.

"The report doesn't paint an optimistic picture of the security situation," said a White House official. He described the 27-page document as "very candid and very frank." Government officials always say that about reports, but in this case, it's actually true.

You can sense in this report the tension that lies ahead between Obama and his commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus. The military didn't write this assessment (one top military leader hadn't even read it before it was leaked to the Wall Street Journal).

The White House knows that Petraeus might offer a somewhat different account of where things are heading in Afghanistan. "The military would not dispute that the situation is challenging," said the White House official. "They'd say, 'Yeah, it's bleak, but we're working full speed on all fronts to get ahead of it.' "

What drew a front-page headline in the Journal was the report's discussion of the deteriorating political situation in Pakistan and the refusal of the Pakistani military to mount a new offensive against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in North Waziristan, as the United States wants. "This is as much a political choice as it is a reflection of an under-resourced military prioritizing its targets," the report notes, although it concedes that after the devastating floods in August, the Pakistani military was swamped with relief work.

The sharp critique will add a little more fuel to the combustible U.S.-Pakistani relationship. The report describes the "declining popularity" of President Asif Ali Zardari, the plummeting public confidence in his government and the growing perception that Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, the army chief of staff, is the "lead decision maker" on national security.

Reading the Pakistan section, you can't help wondering whether a soft coup is taking place: The military (whose popularity is increasing even as that of the politicians declines) is assuming ever-greater responsibility for Pakistan's welfare, even though it is nominally staying out of politics.

The political impact of the White House report on the United States lies in the somber discussion of Afghanistan. It's not so much that these are new concerns but that the White House states them so bluntly.

Through June 30 in Afghanistan, "progress across the country was uneven." Despite a ballyhooed offensive in Marjah in February, "projected gains have yet to manifest themselves fully in Helmand province." Nationwide, "district-by-district data show that only minor positive change had occurred with respect to security," and the percentage of Afghans who said their security was "bad" in June was the highest since September 2008.

The cornerstone of the U.S. strategy -- the plan to begin transferring responsibility to Afghan forces starting in July 2011 -- also looks shaky. The Afghan army and police are expanding, but their "operational effectiveness is uneven." An effort to recruit more Pashtuns from the south has had "inconclusive" results. A highly touted Afghan army operation in August was botched ("hastily planned, poorly rehearsed").

The bleakest area of all was governance. The performance of President Hamid Karzai's government was judged "unsatisfactory" throughout the first half of the year. Indeed, public perceptions seemed to be worsening, with fewer people saying in June than in March that the government is moving "in the right direction" and more (still a minority) saying a return to power by the Taliban would be good. Public confidence in Karzai's actions against corruption fell, from 21.5 percent in March to 16.5 percent in June.

Petraeus, to be fair, is working to fix what he can. He argued in a recent interview that "only now do we have all the right inputs in place," with the completion in August of the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops. But this leaves out the most important input of all, which is a reliable partnership with an Afghan government and military to which America could eventually transfer responsibility. That's still missing.

Given the temptations to fudge the facts, you have to credit the White House for making an independent evaluation, without the weasel-words that often fill such reports. The message is unmistakable: The administration's Af-Pak strategy is not yet producing adequate results.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company