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U.S. and NATO allies to announce 'transition' strategy in Afghanistan war
U.S. military and civilian leaders have claimed major successes in clearing operations around Kandahar, but fear those gains are being jeopardized by the failure of the Karzai government to provide competent civilian officials and services. If the local population is not satisfied, U.S. officials have said, it will show little resistance to Taliban fighters expected to return with warm weather in the spring.
The military, citing intelligence indicating that many Taliban fighters are unhappy with their own leadership and growing weary of the fight, has warned that time is short to consolidate the progress they have made.
But U.S. intelligence agencies have compiled a divergent narrative of some of the facts on the ground. While agreeing that U.S. forces have killed large numbers of mid-level Taliban, they see no real change in insurgent capabilities, with commanders and fighters being quickly replaced.
To some extent, one official said, different parts of the government "come to different conclusions because we want to." Petraeus has said that intelligence analysis is retrospective and too slow to reflect the fast-moving situation, the official said, while the intelligence agencies have said the military is trying to justify its ongoing mission and limit the promised withdrawals.
"There is no intention in the White House to either elevate or quash the intelligence analysis," this official said. "But there is a group that would like less emphasis on this."
The intelligence community, said another official, "thinks Petraeus is full of it." But in high-level sessions since September, the general's assessments have remained unchallenged. "No one argues with Petraeus in front of the president," this official said.
"A lot depends on what part of the elephant you're touching," said one member of the White House group meeting almost daily to pore over incoming review reports. "Petraeus can point to some real progress in a number of the purely military areas. Other people will look and see in other areas . . . that things may be more difficult."
The objective, he said, is "trying to resolve conflicts, asking hard questions, trying to clear up discrepancies and present the most comprehensive picture of what we believe is happening."
The drawdown pledge
Policy options will not be part of the review, officials said. Rather, the principals will be presented with a list of areas in which decisions will have to be made. One of the questions to be addressed by Obama, Biden and top national security officials in the spring is how many troops to withdraw, and from where.
Obama has made some converts among those who at first opposed a public withdrawal pledge. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who initially believed the July withdrawal pledge "denied us flexibility," said he changed his position and "came to believe this was the right decision" after Obama promised to base any U.S. drawdown on "conditions on the ground."
"If the Taliban are telling their supporters and their soldiers today, the Americans are leaving in July of 2011, they're going to discover very quickly in August and September of 2011 we're still there and we're still out there killing," Gates said in a Tuesday interview with ABC News's "Nightline."
Others remain unconvinced. "It sends the wrong message, and it created a problem," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said of the July deadline at a Wednesday news conference in Afghanistan.